Games of the Year
Below is each game that I've featured (thus far) in my attempt to name the best game of every year from 1984 (when I was born) to present. More to be added as I finish the feature in the coming weeks.
Below is each game that I've featured (thus far) in my attempt to name the best game of every year from 1984 (when I was born) to present. More to be added as I finish the feature in the coming weeks.
1984: In many ways, 1984 represents the nadir of video game history. The crash has occured and the industry was unsure where it was going to exist for another year. So it would be easy to disregard Marble Madness as simply the best of the worst. But that would undermine the simple genius of the game. The Escher-inspired surreal visuals and ambiant soundtrack create a sensory experience, but what really draws the game to a new level is the tactial marble-shaped controller. By physically moving an object in digital space, it provides a certain mind-turning physicalness to the gameplay. Add the fact that halfway through the game begins to break its own rules, with levels that move upwards, and you have a deceptively heavy, artful arcade classic.
1985: There seem to be two sets of gamers: those that have never heard of the Alternate Reality series and those that speak of it in hushed reverence. Even by modern standards, the scope and ambition of the games are staggering, a six-game epic that would allow you to transfer character data from one game to the next. The opening scene of the City alone is worth induction into a fictional game museum, especially considering the generation and hardware it was released on. Earth's inhabitants are all abducted, along with the player character, and transported to some vaguely alien other location. It then becomes your mission to determine where you are, why everyone seems to know you and how you can get back home. The game's titular city was a defined place to wander in, with set characters and items to encounter. Allegiances and relationships could be formed and broken; in fact, a hidden alignment unknown to the player but randomly generated in character creation would effect how NPCs would react to you initially. Sadly, Philip Price's opus was left incomplete with Datasoft went belly up after only two releases. Alternate Reality is a unsung masterpiece of games and an inspiring example of ambition and innovation. To say it was ahead of its time is a disgusting understatement.
1986: And thus begins the Nintendomination. Honestly, I'm having a hard time finding something to say about Super Mario Bros. that hasn't been said already a million times. While it didn't really "invent" platformers, it certain perfected the genre early on and offered a vision of what gaming was to be for the next 10 years and beyond. The amount of detailed attention that goes into level design, the varied enemies you encounter, the relative graphical detail, the responsive controls, the unforgettable digital honky tonk, the amount of devious secrets to uncover and enjoy. Every individual piece of the game is so finely crafted that it in one instant rewrote the history of games. 25 years later, the firm foundations of the game still prove valid, as Nintendo releases another 2D Mario platformer. While there is no way to guess where gaming would be today without Mario, it is undeniable that it would be decidedly different.
1987: The remarkable thing about the original Zelda isn't only that it was developed and designed simoltaniously with Super Mario Bros. Nor is it that both projects were headed by the same mind in Shigeru Miyamoto. The remarkable thing is that both games are so remarkably different, despite that similar origin. Yes, there is something about the art direction and graphical layout that give away that the same developers worked on the game, but the head space experience of the games is completely different. While Mario is about precise movement and jumping in a linear path, Link's adventure is based on exploration and puzzle solving. The opening screen, which dumps you in what looks like a vast wasteland with no clear direction of where to go next, is both daunting and exhilerating. While Mario ultimately would have more influence over time, the first Zelda game shows an amount of sophistication both exhibited by the developers and expected of the players. For anyone who was paying attention, it could be taken as a sign that Nintendo was serious about making games for everyone.
1988: The arcade title Bionic Commando is a competent but unremarkable shooter, pitched as a spirtual successor to Commando with a grappling hook mechanic and super deformed graphic. The Nintendo title Bionic Commando is a sci-fi shooter/RPG hybrid about a group of terrorist Nazis attempting to ressurect Hit-...um, "Master-D". Either way, this is clearly an improvement and was another sign that Capcom (along with Konami and of course Nintendo) was one of the big shot developers in this budding new age of video games. The swinging mechanic which replaces jumping creates both an obstacle and a sense of freedom, allowing you to jettison upward and take care of "Badds" that much more easily. The bullet collection mechanic and the ability to earn in-game clues as to what awaits ahead of you just adds layer of depth. And to be true to the name, Commando style top-down shooter levels are included to break up the pacing a bit. While the name has been somewhat tarnished with GRIN's sub-par stab at retooling the series, the original still remains among the prime NES titles, despite having a somewhat lower profile to some other Capcom brethren.
1989: The importance and greatness of Tetris breaks down into three very important aspects. First, the game mastered the genre of puzzle game. While titles that tickled the brain had existed before, Tetris provided a template for all followers. Its "simple to learn, difficult to master" design concept inspired countless imitators. The beauty of Tetris then is not from the complexity, but from the obvious simplicity. The objective is fairly self-evident, and the joy of mastering it provides it own reward. The second importance of Tetris is that the game provided a platform for mobile games to thrive. While Tetris had already existed for three years before it came pre-packed with every Game Boy sold, it wasn't until this incarnation that the game "clicked" as an international sensation. Its perfected bite-sized gameplay proved a suitable companion to the on-the-go philosophy of portable gaming. Finally, Tetris reminded that video games could very well have something for everyone. Decidedly light on narrative or rewards beyond high-score obsession, it is probably the most widely played and recognized game in existence, even beyond Mario. The ability for the game to be groked by nearly everyone allows it to enjoy a wide, diverse fan base. Claims that Tetris ended the Cold War are hopelessly hyperbolic, but the cultural unity of a game designed in Soviet Russia becoming a sensation in America proved a universal appeal, allowing the game to garner a reputation outside of the usual hall of gamers.
1990: While (the intentionally unlisted) American Super Mario Bros. 2 provided a distinctly different take on how Mario games could play, it didn't have the charm of the original. So with the third installment of the series, Nintendo returned to basics and provided a game that excelled over its predecessors by leaps and bounds. While Mario games had always been one of the most masterfully crafted games in terms of art design, SMB3 pushed the limits of the by-now aged hardware, with colorful and inventive enemies. The three-tier power levels was shifted, to allow for the top tier to be split into several optional varieties, or "suits. Certain suits even were specifically useful only in certain levels, providing an admittedly shallow element of strategy to the precise platformer. The whole package provided a fitting swan song and book end to the dominant gaming system of the last four years; with the release of the Super Nintendo in America the year after, the landscape was about to change.
1991: A quick disclaimer: I know that a lot of great games came out in 1991 in America. And I could understand any list that would put any of those games over a Castlevania game that, in all reality, isn't all that different from its predecessors. In fact, the game is somewhat retrograde to the previous installments, which began introducing RPG elements that would eventually boil over into the masterpiece Symphony of the Night. The game really amounts to the little more than a gussed up reimagining of the original title. But this is ultimately my list, and the game that came out that year that had the most profound effect one me is Super Castlevania IV. The game visually alone provided incentive for upgrading to a new geneartion of consoles, as well as the amount of twisting and turning the environment was subject to. For the first time, Dracula's castle felt like a living, breathing environment that was itself an enemy; common touchstones, such as the clockwork sequence, were given new life and excitement. Super Castlevania IV was the last truly great game of the series to follow the original's template, but it recreated it so perfectly that it would be hard to imagine the series continuing on this path and ever truly getting much better. Yes, 1991 is a very important and prolific year in gaming, and yes, there are several games that probably deserve a much more historical nod for innovating and pushing the genre forward. But the most undeniable fun I had in 1991 was undeniable taken from this title. And that has to be worth something.
1992: If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then Street Fighter II might be the most flattered game of all time. And yet what all of the countless clones and challengers miss from the master is the balance and zen-like flow of play. Capcom's groundbreaking fighter has a very specific flow and rhythm to it, and that rhythm can change depending on who you play. According to legend, the idea of combos came as a surprise to the game's designers when it was discovered in the QA process that you could string certain attacks together for additional damage. The rock-paper-scissors quality and payback mechanics provide the game a level of depth that rewards dedicated play, and has created a long-standing competitive culture. The amount of enjoyment to be found in this game is still being explored and refined, and the DNA of the original is still very much the blueprint for almost every follower, including baby brother Street Fighter IV.
1993: There are few games that can be as easily summed up in one word as Gunstar can: frantic. The game constantly keeps pushing you forward, through and past waves of deadly enemies until you reach its superb boss battles. The speed of the game makes it difficult to fully enjoy the lushly created environments, the customizable weapon scheme and the twitch skills needed to traverse the trickier later levels. Of course, the real striking moments come in the multiple-stage boss battles, visually and mechanically striking and jaw-dropping. Treasures tenacity to push the Genesis hardware as hard as they did impresses, especially considering this was their first foray into game design. And while they have gone on to make fantastic (and still frantic) games, nothing has quite captured the kinetic energy of the original.
1994: In the name of full disclosure, I will admit up front that Super Metroid is my favorite game of all time. It isn't because of some sense of nostalgia for playing the game when I was in my whipper-snapper years; I only got around to playing the game my senior year in college, 2007. Rather, it is out of amazement of how the game has remained engaging and beautiful all these years later. The core gameplay of Samus' 16-bit journey is the standard as every other Metroid game: discovering power-ups to reveal new sections of the game-map and uncovering more powerful enemies to defeat. But the atmosphere and experience of playing Super Metroid draws you in immediately. The gigantic sprawling world is sparse but intricately imagined. Discovering artifacts and enemies of a long dead planet raped by space pirates is a harrowing and sometimes emotionally draining experience, borrowing heavily from the isolated horror if its spiritual mother, Alien. When Samus eventually finds the larva that she comes to save, only for it to attack her in adolescent confusion and frustration breaks my heart. While Thomson's claim that the Metroid Prime Trilogy is "our Citizen Kane" is laughable, the truth is that few games have excited, thrilled, scared and genuinely touched me quite like Super Metroid.
1995: A co-worker of mine is currently playing through Chrono Trigger for the first time on his DS. Through him, I am reliving how many moments of that game are so expertly crafted and realized. The game is constantly watching and reacting to your actions, allowing you to feel as if your every decision has an ultimate price and purpose. The refinement of the active battle system allows a streamlined and constantly entertaining JRPG battle experience, enhanced even more by the Techs systems. But it was the use of time travel that set Chrono Trigger's experience apart, offering differing worlds to explore from familiar but tweaked environments. Add the fact that these worlds looked fantastic, pushing the SNES to its outer limits. With branching storylines and the NewGame feature, Chrono Trigger was a loving gift from Squaresoft for long-time 16-bit RPG fans.
1996: The core concept of Mario 64 is radical enough for its day and time to leave it head and shoulders above just about everyone else. The idea of moving Mario around and through a 3D environment seems too wild to really work. And yet the the initial impression is one of unparalleled jaw-dropping wonder, an experience repeted throughout playing. Sailing through the air is especially gratifying, adding an extra context and tactile excitement to the soaring Mario had done since his third platformer. Add the precise controls and imaginative world design that defined the series from the beginning, and you have a game that truly excels even beyond its mad ambition. The variety of activities in large, open worlds that the player constantly explores and uncover add thrills and variety up to the final conflict. It bears mentioning that 64 was the last Mario game to leave such an awe-inspiring impression for a very long time, but it also remains among the best in the lauded series. In some ways, it sits on top of the Mario Game Throne.
1997: Given my already stated love of Castlevania and near cultish worship of Super Metroid, this selection shouldn't really be a surprise. But to call Symphony of the Night merely a Metroid clone misses some of the real enjoyment of the game. Take for instance the opening moments of the game, which replay the end of Dracula: Rondo of Blood, the last side-scrolling traditional game of the series before Symphony. It serves as a reminder of the mechanics that the game had always operated within and also provides a view into the bombastic narrative the game lovingly embraces. But moments later, you discover that this isn't Richter's game, but Alucard's, Dracula's vampire son who first appeared in Castlevania III. Thus, you have no access to the Vampire Killer, and while you start with amazing powers, Death strips you pretty quickly of those as well. The sense of discovery as the game progresses only goes deeper and deeper, encouraging and rewarding exploration. Different weapons have benefits and draw-backs. Screen-filling enemy fights frighten and disgust. By the time the game literally flips everything upside down, you've learned to expect anything. While Metroid is a much tighter and more emotionally satisfying experience, the level of shock, both from the grotesque and the unexpected, in Symphony made it both a game of established traditions and a new creation for the next generation. It was at once familiar and unknown, like the archetypal monsters that wander Dracula's haven.
1998: Metal Gear Solid is an odd duck, to put it mildly. The core of the story is an anti-war narrative, yet the primary action you take in the game is hiding in corners so you can take advantage of unwary opponents. Solid Snake constantly rattles on about how impossible his mission seems, only to prove to have inhuman resolve. And while some of the crazier plot elements are only hinted at in this first incarnation, Kojima is one of the few game auteurs to truly take full advantage of his chosen medium for maximum mythical effect. Yes, the game utilizes long cinematic cut-scenes (nothing compared to its sequels) and extended codec conversations, but those are simply one tool in his storytelling handbag (and an innovative one for the time). The core moments of Metal Gear Solid are sneaking around and solving each room more like a puzzle than a level. There are multiple ways to do it...and multiple ways NOT to do it, just as organized and planned. The game constantly engages a unique, tactical headspace, only to turn around and violate its own rules once boss battles begin. Easily described as an extended, brilliant mind-fuck, Metal Gear Solid provides an early template for what artistic, thoughtful game design in the 3D age can achieve.
1999: Cliff Bleszisnki semi-recently commented that RPG was the future of FPS. While the actual parsing of that sentence is headache inducing, it isn't hard to see that he's one to something. Of course, if he had been paying attention, he would have known that Ken Levine and Waren Specter already figured that out, more than a decade earlier. With System Shock 2, Levine and his team at Irrational created possibly the most rare of gaming experiences, something both frightening and cerebral. While the game falls much more heavily on the RPG side of the hybrid formula, it shows a vision for games to cross borders much more boldly than any game before it. By using audio logs and ghostly projected images as narrative tools rather than rote cut scenes, Irrational is challenging traditional storytelling devices while also submerging the player into System Shocks dire, oppressive world. By the time the game reaches its predictably sequel-hinting end, the player has been given a glimpse into the future of first-person gaming, even if we're only starting to see the full influence.
2000: In the last entry, I mentioned that all of Blizzard's first run of genre-defining titles were skipped over, mostly because the level of content coming out in that era was unprecedented. And that same level of quality could be argued for this batch of years, but I would be remiss to not give the nod to Diablo II. The amount of time I've sunk into this game is near criminal. And I'm not alone; Diablo II still is frequently patched and rebalanced. It is timeless in its refinement and balance, as well as the compulsion to collect more loot. No wonder Blizzard would go on to master the MMO genre; they already proved they understand the compulsion of going over just that next hill. Even each class plays like its own experience, with differing strategies and approaches. Add the variations possible in 8-player coop, and you have a game that is endlessly replayable and enjoyable. While a good argument can be made that WoW is Blizzard's shining achievement as far as player base, it is hard to argue that they have ever made a game quite as brilliant as Diablo II.
2001: Excuse me to be dismissive for a moment, but the first Silent Hill always felt like Konami's attempt to cash in on the whole survival horror boom that was going on in the late 90s, with the added "twist" of combat being completely worthless rather just mostly worthless. Which is why its such a shock that the first sequel is among the most ambitious examples of storytelling ever attempted. The story of James Sunderland at first seems quite horror 101: he recieves communication from his dead wife, and understandably travels to the mentioned town of Silent Hill to figure out why exactly. However, it quickly becomes quite clear that nothing is quite as rote as it initially seems. Everything that James experiences is thrown into question as it becomes very clear that he himself is not fully sane. So the question becomes if the monsters James encounters are real, or merely projections of his broken psyche. The game never answers these fully, and offers multiple outcomes of various tragedy. But Silent Hill 2 is more about questions than answers anyway, and challenges the player to come to their own conclusions. By respecting the gamer's intelligence, the game rises above its "Me Too" legacy and becomes one of the true masterpieces of a crowded genre.
2002: Few games have defined the last ten years of gaming quite as much as what direction Rockstar decided to move into with the third installment of the Grand Theft Auto series. But it wasn't until Vice City that the games hit their sadistic stride. By shifting away from a nameless protagonist into the shoes of Tommy Verceti, who very quickly learns that there is not such thing as loyalty in the criminal underworld. Thus begins an ambitious journey for power and revenge in Vice City, which is really the star of the game. While Liberty City was a comedic pastiche of urban America (most specifically New York City,) Vice City was set in a specific time and place. The time machine approach of using the Miami Vice environment allowed the game to operate within understood archetypes. By adding meat to the glorious bones of GTAIII, Vice City created a living, breathing world that demands to be explored. It proved that the key to making lasting sandbox games is to create a sandbox well worth living into.
2003: And while Beyond Good and Evil is not a sequel, it does form something of a collage of great 3D-era games. It uses the stealth of Metal Gear Solid, the puzzle-platforming of Zelda and the high-speed, low-impact racing of Mario Kart. Even rail photography sim Pokemon Snap has a influence with the photography aspects of the game. The whole sum is a love letter to classic game design, offering a well balanced mix bag of some of the highlights of the previous seven years of gaming. But all of this would simply be novel repurposing if not for the fact that the game is wrapped around one of the most subtletly subversive game narratives released. The political message of never trusting anything on face value, mixed with the game's cartoon sensibility, is instantly memorable for being both mature enough to carry weight while also never becoming heavy handed. The journey for Jade, gaming's undeniable greatest female hero, provides a fitting background for gamers to be given a meaningful, mature experience without resulting in sometimes juvenile wish-fulfillment.
2004: The narrative of Half-Life 2 is never fully explained in torturous exposition, which is naturally why it is so compelling. The story of Gordon Freeman waking up in a dystopian future with little understanding of his surroundings creates a perfect backdrop for Valve's effortless shooter masterpiece. The pacing of Half-Life 2, with its puzzles followed by combat followed by puzzles that lead to more combat, continually pushes you forward. The characters you meet are well-defined without feeling like creations. The world is one of horror and wonder, with Gordon constantly uncovering more broken segments of the Combine's manipulations. The game is essentially one unbroken shot, a trademark of Valve's games, that briskly moves along. One of the greatest testaments to Valve's design is that it proves that linear game design is not a fault, but a skill, offering a game that is the creation of master auteurs at the height of their craft.
2005: It is a bit (okay, really) difficult to make out, but my avatar is actually a screenshot from a fictional demake of Psychonauts for the Game Boy. The Milkman Conspiracy level to be precise, which is just one example of one of the games highlights. While many better 3D platformers have been made from a purely mechanical standpoint, none have a core concept quite so fascinating: every level is the psyche of a game's character. This includes the portion of their personality that they want you to see, and the pain and torment they have locked away. Supported by the genius writing of Tim Schafer and Eric Wolpaw, the game offers surprisingly rich portraits of complex human beings within the guise of Tim Burton inspired grotequeries. The resulting experience is amusing and thought provoking, and is in turns moving and disturbing.
2006: Yes, it is hard to remember when the whole peripheral guided rhthym game genre was still novel. And yes, 2006 wasn't exactly a watermark year for gaming. But Guitar Hero 2 is still a high mark for the series, mostly because it introduced the concept of playing together, either in co-op or in competition. It provided the first hint of what it felt like playing in a group, and offered a soundtrack of fairly shredtastic tunes. Most importantly, with its new outrageous characters and bloated venues, the game fully utilized the rock-star-simulator aspect of the original game to the umpth degree. While the ongoing Rock Band/Guitar Hero war becomes more and more grating as days go by, this second entry in the then-unknown battle is most likely the zenith of the Hero series. It built upon the excitement and promise of the original, and offered a basic blueprint for where Harmonix would grow next.
2007: If Half-Life 2 is a bold, inspiring attempt to reimagine the FPS genre, then Portal is the clear heir to its throne. Short, sparse and effortlessly streamlined, the game constantly surprises and urges the player along. And while much can be made of the narrative (I still hold that the whole game functions as a meta-commentary on the structure of video games, with the player as Chell, GLaDOS as Valve and cake served up glorious by Jonathan Coulton), the game wouldn't be any good if not for the expertly designed puzzle dynamics. The majority of the games head play is made up of sorting out how to get across spaces using carefully designed portals, then implementing occasionally tricky timing to actually execute. Chell never acts offensively, purely in defense, but the amount of empowerment towards the end is rather amazing. The tug and pull between feeling like you're breaking free, only to realize that you're following the very path you're designed to go along, is not only a masterful bit of game design, but something that will help inspire years of indie game philosophy.
2008: After doing 25 of these, it probably is becoming clear that setting is very important to my opinions on games. From the husk of planet Zebes, to the bright neon of Vice City, to the quirky Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, few things will cause me to love a game more than an imaginative locale within which to play. Perhaps that is why exploring the husk of the USG IShimura left such a strong impression with me. Or perhaps it was the clever use of mining tools to solve puzzles and hack off limbs from raging necromorphs. It could be the unbelievable sound design, only fully appreciated in full 5.1 surround. Or how Dead Space doesn't limit itself to the stock standard rules of survival horror, and offer a setting at once familiar and alien (no pun intended). While it certainly borrows a lot from other games (including games on this very list, namely System Shock and Half-Life 2,) the precision and detail that went into every second of Dead Space created a memorable and truly frightening experience that served as the highlight of the last year of gaming.
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