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Top 10 Games of 2000 - 2009 (Plus the 10 I like Better)

These are the greatest games of the decade in my view. How to define greatness? It's the combination of high quality and grand importance or significance. I'm not saying these games affected you; they affected me, and I'd argue they affected gaming itself. I'm doubling the list to make room for unobvious choices I feel strongly about but that don't reasonably deserve to crack a top-10. This list also expresses my particular bias for games based around fictional ideas and characters -- I mean no offense by neglecting certain genres that may affect you more than they affect me, but to me the most moving games are ones with characters in them.
This is the decade in games in which the balance of power switched from the East to the West. The Japan-dominated '90s gave way to Western-developed games this decade, specifically starting in 2001 with the back-to-back releases of Grand Theft Auto III and Halo: Combat Evolved; BioWare's work in the role-playing genre with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic also substantially contributed. 
This was a rough decade in many ways, but for game players it was fantastic so long as they kept playing.

List items

  • An eye-opening experience with an impeccable, classic sense of style -- still the finest style of any Grand Theft Auto game, and considering that series is always the standard-setter, that's saying a lot. I have the GTA III soundtrack forever imprinted in my memory and so, so many moments of that game were sublime. I know a lot of people thought Vice City was even better and in some ways, so did I. But GTA III is the game that started it all, and is the game that I think is most responsible for the advancement of the medium (for better and for worse) this decade. When I first played this game, I remember the feeling sinking in that it really was OK to run red lights, crash into things, even run people over and worse... what a shocking, strange, awesome sensation to have from a game.

  • One of the finest first-person shooters ever made, combining probably the best world design for such a game (right up there with Half-Life) and finally nailing the controls on console. Also bringing vehicles into the mix, proving that "first-person shooter" is really a misnomer. Halo was also a remarkably innovative game, though for some reason it's fashionable to ignore that. But where would today's shooters be without a grenade button, without recharging health, without limits on the number of weapons you can carry, and so on? Today's shooters are still trying to live up to Halo's standard.

  • This game blew me away when it first came out, and I remember it being difficult to explain exactly why -- because, sure, World of Warcraft was similar to gamesl like EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot and it clearly owes a lot to them. But it was better, hands-down. It ruthlessly eliminated the frustration and the slog from those games, leaving only the cumpulsion and a far superior moment-to-moment experience than any other MMO before, or after (at least to date), has achieved. Along with the #1 and #2 games on this list, I think this one is undeniable.

  • Some Zelda aficionados are quick to dismiss this game as a reskinning of Ocarina of Time, which they consider superior. But man... what a reskinning. This is probably the most artistically inspired game I've ever played, and the world was so cohesively realized and so filled with detail that simply standing still and doing nothing in it was pleasurable for me. And the experience of playing happened to be outstanding. This game also holds a special place in my heart for being one of the two games I've ever played that interested my wife, who watched me play through the whole thing with interest (whereas she's aggressively indifferent toward every other game).

  • The bleeding edge of high-quality game production. Still a game that looks so good and whose atmosphere is so well realized that newer games can barely begin to compete. Resident Evil 4 is one of a small number of games that just absolutely blew me away with its presentation. To this day I have absolutely no idea how they could have created that world and those creatures. My best guess is that the creatures really do exist and were motion captured. The Jack Krauser level, while deplorable in retrospect for its use of quick-time events, was one of the most amazing gaming experiences I'd ever had for its time. This was also a remarkably brave game, filled with a righteous indignation for not settling. It took a franchise that was still plenty popular and successful but rebooted it anyway, for the best. If only all good videogame franchises cared as much to do a thing like this.

  • This was so asking to be a trainwreck, but again, it underscores the theme of '00 - '09 of Western developers beginning to surpass their Japanese counterparts. As with Zelda, Metroid Prime is an incredibly well detailed and fully realized gameworld, and one of the best games I've ever played. Few games have managed to make me feel like I really was in some sort of incredible, faraway place like this game. Fewer still made me think I was a female bounty hunter with a gun for an arm.

  • Metal Gear Solids 3 and 4 are superior games. But Metal Gear Solid 2 was a one-of-a-kind event I'll never forget. How on Earth they kept the Raiden thing under wraps still boggles my mind, and the treachery of this game -- the meta relationship between the creator and his fanbase paying off in the reveal of Raiden as the protagonist -- is something that I think helped define the decade and how community became a stronger influence, for better and for worse, on game development and design. God bless Kojima for putting his fans in their place. With Metal Gear Solid 2, he reminded everyone that there's a reason the designers are the designers and the fans are the fans. It's an arrogant point but an important one with truth to it.

  • Orange Box is sort of a cheat since it's multiple games in one, and make no mistake, I put it here for Portal and not for Half-Life 2. But I also put it here over Portal itself because it's (at last) an acknowledgment that a game can't be all things to all people -- so the solution is really to provide multiple games for multiple tastes. Sadly, most shooters are still expected to serve single-player and multiplayer game players in equal measure, but the Orange Box really had it right: Provide sublime single-player experiences designed purely for those audiences, and sublime multiplayer experiences designed purely for those audiences. Who's ever going to top this?

  • This one is harder for me to defend, but then again, there's nothing anyone can do to change how I feel about it. Max Payne upped the ante for action games with truly cinematic experiences, and yet what was so great about it was that it had its own identity. Yes, it was influenced by movies. But unlike so many other games before and after, it wasn't trying to be the movies, drawing influence from them only up to a point. It turned out to be a very distinct, extremely well presented and intense action game, which I think set a standard for shooters (the dominant genre) all through this year. I loved this game and remember it vividly in all respects even though I played it nearly a decade ago. I think it raised the bar for the sort of quality that could be expected from a game.

  • There were a lot of amazing role-playing games in the decade but this was the one that truly made me feel as though I could do anything and that the game would back me up. It also found a near-perfect balance of sandbox-style play as well as good, strong narrative -- the Dark Brotherhood questline, in particular, is one of the best stories I've experienced in an RPG, with some ruthless and brilliantly imagined twists and turns. Oblivion was just an exhilirating game for me, and a perfect example of how the best RPGs are easy to forgive for their faults because of their surpassing qualities.

  • I love this game dearly. It reminds me a lot of my roots, playing strategy games (from Dune II to X-COM) and role-playing games (from Ultima to Final Fantasy), and it's an exceedingly great combination of the two. Fire Emblem takes everything I loved about those games, adds an incredibly rich story and cast of characters, and makes me care about what's happening more than just about any other game. It also does something important and unique among all other games, which is to make you feel a sense of mortality -- finally, finally a fantasy game in which one unlucky sword stroke can bring swift, shocking, saddening death. To me this game is the eternal reminder that great things can come in small packages, and that you don't need expensive cutscenes or even voices or animation to achieve great, memorable characters in a game. Of all the games on this list, this is the one I return to the most.

  • One of the most complete and fully realized first-person gaming experiences I've ever played, with an impeccable and confident sense of style, and a fantastic mix of intensity, violence, and humor. The game was well ahead of its time, showing a glimpse of how first-person gaming would need to evolve from being simple shooters to full-fledged experiences that have you doing all sorts of things from the perspective of a well-defined character. Riddick is still a class act and an inspiring game.

  • In 1999, a game called FreeSpace 2 arguably caused the near-death of the space combat simulation genre because of how insanely good it was. It was almost as if just about everyone gave up on trying to make anything similar. Baldur's Gate II had a similar effect on the PC role-playing game in my opinion. After this game, nothing really came close. There were different games like Oblivion or Gothic, but Baldur's Gate II fully achieved the epic (using the true meaning of the word) party-based fantasy role-playing game. I don't think there's been a better BioWare game since in terms of the richness of gameplay on offer, though BioWare deserves a ton of credit for continuing to set a very high bar.

  • One of the first and only smart shooters. This is the game that influenced Valve's knack for great characters and sharp dialogue in its recent hits, and thankfully other games are catching on too. No One Lives Forever felt way ahead of its time and executed on what seemed like a simple '60s spy theme with so much virtuoso, it was crazy. I think this really is an unsung hero among first-person shooters and is responsible for levelling up the genre, taking it from boys' toys into territory that was less embarrassing and straight-up better.

  • Every decent military-themed shooter owes a lot to Allied Assault, the game that was Call of Duty before Call of Duty. I thought about including Modern Warfare or the original Call of Duty somewhere in this list, but really, much like Grand Theft Auto III is dearer to me than its sequels, I feel the same way about Allied Assault in comparison to its spiritual successors. Here's a game that really fulfilled that promise of putting you in the middle of a harrowing WWII film. But the important thing was it had excellent, well-tuned gunplay to go with its well-crafted rollercoaster ride of a campaign.

  • Those social games that are growing like weeds on the Internet pretty much all owe a debt to Animal Crossing, a wildly innovative and ingeniously all-ages-suitable game that created the idea of appointment-based play. Here was a game that countered the concept of hunkering down and slogging through hours and hours of content by all but forcing you to slow down, chill out, and take things a day at a time -- a fine life lesson, not to mention an amazing structure for a game. Not to mention, Animal Crossing has some of the most endearing characters of any Nintendo game, which is an amazing feat. This game also holds a special place in my heart for being the other game my wife was willing to play, and the first game my 4-year-old daughter got into. Good taste.

  • Just a beautiful game, the swan song for a dying genre, the on-rails shooter. It's as if the entire premise of the game, a lonely girl fighting against the world on the back of the last known dragon, is a metaphor for what this game really is. To me this was just a beautiful experience from top to bottom, which did the thing I really like: combine rich, precise, well-tuned gameplay with a fully realized, amazing-looking setting. I loved the little details about this game, such as how enemies panicked at the sight of my character, causing me to empathize with my foes as I blasted them to smithereens. I never though a game like this could make me think, and it's still one of the best-looking games of the decade. Panzer Dragoon Orta took me away to another world, and I won't forget its combination of beauty and melancholy.

  • I feel privileged to be part of the club capable of playing this game, and I admit I sort of hate it at times for being so stubborn about teaching everyone else what it takes to be a competent player (just learn to block! that's it!). But that aside, man oh man, is this one of the finest action games ever made or what? In a lot of ways Ninja Gaiden is like my ultimate dream game, combining the depth, technical precision, and detail of a great fighting game with the structure of a good action adventure game -- and, of course, combat encounters that put you in some unfair situations that you still manage to shoot/slice your way out of. I wish the story were as good as the NES game and its sequel but Ninja Gaiden is still one of the most exhilarating action gaming experiences I've ever had, constantly making me feel amazed at what I was capable of, without any of the condescension of today's rather common flashy-but-challenge-free games.

  • Another game I need not defend other than to say I love it. Ikaruga has the soul of the independent game. Before Braid, before Castle Crashers and Flower and all that, there was Ikaruga, made by three or four people, built to absolute perfection for what it is. A pure, fully realized concept is at the heart of this game, the aesthetic design provides a surprisingly moving emotional experience, and the trance-like action challenges the player to his core. This game is brilliant and amazing to me to this day, and a symbol of how conservation and focus can lead to games of surpassing quality.

  • As a counterpart to Ikaruga, Killer7 to me expresses the spirit of the auteur -- an important reminder that even in the days of ballooning development costs and ballooning teams, games still can and sometimes should represent a singular, unique, original vision. Killer7 is an impenetrable game that's as complex and interesting to me as much of the classic literature I read in college. It's the sort of game that far, far exceeded the duration of its 20 hours of gameplay in my mind, as I've continued remembering and thinking about it for years. My advice to anyone about Killer7 is this: If you play it, be sure to play it all the way through. You'll want to give up at times but it's worth seeing through to the end. There's some sort of wise lesson in this game, something profound, more than anything I've ever played.