What's the Greatest Video Game: The Legend of Zelda

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imunbeatable80

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Edited By imunbeatable80

This is an ongoing series where I attempt to Play/Complete/ and Rank every video game in the known universe. Think of it as really real science and not an opinion piece at all.

To start things off today, I want to do a quick refresher on the rules of the series. For every game I playthrough, I approach them all with two definitive rules:

1) I will not cheat in the game to make progress in the game.

2) I will not be using a guide of any kind to make progress in the game.

I have these two simple rules (and a few others) because if I am truly going to pass judgement on a game, I will have to approach and play the game the way it was meant to be played. If I cheated past hard encounters, then I can't accurately speak about difficulty, and if I look up a guide to solve puzzles, then I'm not engaging the game on its terms. So far throughout 43 ranked games, I have yet to break those rules. Perhaps you might see where this is going.

My brother had an NES from before I can remember. I was born in 87 and probably didn't start playing games until 5 or 6 years old. It meant that there are some games that I grew up fondly playing, and others that I just didn't have the patience for. It also wasn't long after hitting video game playing age that the family got a SNES, and like most other kids, I quickly abandoned our NES library for newer and shinier games.

Zelda, Faxanadu, Chrystalis, and Dragon Warrior were all games that outside of the first hour with the game, I never really made progress in. I have been trying to rectify that, through building up my own collection, and playing games from diverse time periods, but up until 2020 I had never beaten the original Zelda. I'm not saying I got to the final dungeon and just didn't beat Ganon, I am instead talking about never really making it farther than an hour in. That's right, I haven't played Zelda since I was probably 6 - 8 years old. Don't get me wrong, I understand the importance of that game, and have played many other games from the series, but this wasn't a game I ever had nostalgia for and thus never was a go-to game when I would pop in retro games for the odd retreat. It wasn't until talking to my friend that we forced each other into playing two zelda games we missed out on (he had never played SNES Zelda). This has all been a big leadup to ultimately say, this is my very first time through the game, so if you want to pause here and start typing up angry comments, I'll wait.

For the very few people who might now know, The Legend of Zelda is an action/exploration game, where you are travelling from dungeon to dungeon looking to gather pieces of the tri-force and rid the world of evil. The world map is set out like a maze where each screen is a piece of that maze. The joy of Zelda was in the exploration of these screens. What enemies were waiting for you? What secrets could be found? etc. etc. You were supposed to get lost in the world and stumble upon your next objective simply by exploring. Once you were in a dungeon, the game operated the same way, work your way through the maze, until you reached the end (boss of the dungeon) defeat it and then claim your prize. Repeat until all dungeons are cleared.

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Now something that doesn't get talked about a lot, and something I really miss, is how important all the extra documents are that came with the physical game. The instruction book is a beefy book that not only sets up the story (something that is barely touched in game), but allows you to get information on items, enemies, and has other incredibly useful tips to those willing to read the manual. There was a map, and even a guide to basically the first two dungeons all included as well (please note I did not use the guide portion when completing the game). In order to truly beat this game, I had to refer to the manual a lot, to make sure I wasn't missing anything or missing a tip that told me what I should be doing.

Simply put, Zelda is a confusing game.. it is meant to be, but that doesn't necessarily make it great. I had to tap into my past and get in the habit of drawing my own maps, checking to make sure I got every treasure in dungeons, and constantly do dumb things in the hope of finding secrets. I knew from the zeitgeist about burning bushes to reveal secrets, pushing statues and gravestones, using bombs on walls, but because of the games desire for exploration to be the predominant design most of these secrets are not spelled out or signposted. Sure there are some obvious ones, but I think about all the time I spent trying to burn random bushes, pushing every statue and gravestone I came across, and wasting countless bombs on walls just to attempt to push forward, I realize that the "Joy" in discovery is based on the ratio of attempts you tried the same action to no avail. The game doesn't need an arrow pointing at every secret, but outside the few "characters" that give vague hints, your only action is to try all of these things ad nauseum because you don't want to miss out on a key item.

The game is an exercise in trial and error. Like I said, because of the Zeitgeist and playing Link to the Past, I knew that I needed the Silver arrows to beat Ganon, but I had a hell of a time finding them. Not knowing if they were in the last dungeon, out in the overworld or perhaps missed in the 8th dungeon, I spent large swaths of time looking for (and eventually finding) the silver arrows, but that was only because I knew I needed them. There is an alternate timeline where I play and complete this game as a kid, without the knowledge I have now, who is trying to figure out how to kill Ganon with items you already have. Do I need to time a bomb explosion, regular arrows, a candle? Now I know that there is someone (or multiple someones) who is reading this and thinking how stupid I sound. "Of course you get them here (points to imaginary map)" or "I beat this game as a kid with my eyes closed," all of that may be true, but you are saying that now, with years of playing the game under your belt, imagine (if you can) playing it the first time without a guide. I know I didn't 100% the game, I never turned in the letter I got from an old man, I never found the red candle, and certainly missed some heart container pieces, but I am ok with that stuff, because none of it is needed to beat the game. I was more perturbed looking for dungeons to find they were hidden under statues/bushes or looking to advance only to find that I had to bomb one of the 4 walls seemingly at random to progress farther. Those few things I would have loved more hints from characters strewn across the game, but I am sure I'm in the minority there.

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Now I don't want to sound down on Zelda. I enjoyed my time overall with the game, hell I love how it feels to make my own map like I am on an adventure, taking notes furiously and activating part of my brain that hasn't been used like that in video games for years (I used to have a notebook near my old PC, just for adventure games). However, I can admit that this game has flaws, and no number of hand waving "that was the style at the time" will make me see it differently. I think about how far Zelda came when just moving from NES to SNES, how it was able to keep its exploration and action mindset, but make the game less of trial and error. How you always knew where you were going, even if you didn't know how to get there, and I would love to retroactively add some of that back into the NES version.

I can honestly say that I "like" Zelda, but don't love it, and when it comes time to introduce my kids into video games, it might be just a game on the shelf for them to explore on their own time, rather then being one I try to coerce them into playing.

*For new people, who might be interested, I do not take into consideration cultural importance for greatest game of all time. Otherwise this exercise would be futile, because games like Pong, Donkey Kong, and Pac-man would be in your top 5 greatest games of all time. Instead games are ranked heavily on how much fun I had playing them*

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Is this game the Greatest game of all time: Not in my opinion

Where does it rank: I have placed Zelda as the 10th best game out of 43 games. It falls below Yakuza Kiwami 2 and right above "That's You." For comparison purposes I think Mario 1, Super Spike V-Ball, and Mega Man 2 are all better NES games... maybe not as important, but more fun to play.

Up Next: Dante's Inferno (X360)

Anyone looking for it: here is the link to the list and more if you are interested in following along with me (this is not a self promotion). Here

Thanks for listening.

P.S. - there is a lot I didn't discuss here that I think have been better said elsewhere, but they have not gone unnoticed. The music is phenomenal, the ability to play harder game 2, the monster variety.. Chef's kiss to all.

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apewins

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#1  Edited By apewins

I completed it for the first time last year, and I'd say it held up far better than I expected. I really liked the exploration and I'd say the map is far bigger than even Link to the Past has. I made it about halfway through the game on my own when I started occasionally looking at guides for hints, and eventually used a full walkthrough on the last dungeon which is just insane.

I think we can't escape the game had when it originally came out. It was basically the biggest game folks had ever seen, and kids with nothing but time on their hands spent years playing it, exchanging tips at the playground, and buying magazines with additional hints. All of that cannot be experienced again, and I imagine anyone playing it now just want to play it for historical reason, and they probably want to get through it relatively quickly so that they can move on to newer and better games. But in the late 80s, there was nothing better than Zelda so people just kept playing it.

I was most surprised about it's structure where there is no game over, every time you die you just respawn at the beginning with all the progress maintained, I couldn't believe this type of design existed already in the 80s. That made it easy to play even without any specific goal in sight, because you could always go where ever and if you die it doesn't matter, if you manage to find some item or just some money you're better off for your next run. So even when you're not beating dungeons, you're always making progress. A lot of people complain about the one dungeon which is hidden under a bush that needs to be burned, but that bush is really suspicious, it's not possible to walk past it and not be curious about what's under it... unless you're trying to rush through the game in which case you would be playing it wrong.

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redwing42

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DO ZELDA 2 NEXT, COWARD!

This is one of my favorite games of all time, and one that I can almost 100% from memory on command. I have played it once a year every year or two since its release. That said, I agree that it can be tough to truly enjoy coming to it today. The manual is vital, as you mentioned, but there was another piece that most people miss these days. In an issue of the Nintendo Fun Club Magazine (the precursor to Nintendo Power), there was a map which detailed the full world, and noted on which screens there were hidden rooms. It also had maps for some of the dungeons. This was an invaluable tool for many kids, including myself, and made things much more reasonable.

The Second Quest still flummoxes me, though I have beaten that several times as well. It is crazy that there is an entire second version of the game on that cart.

I'm looking forward to seeing what you say about Dante's Inferno. I know in my mind that it was a bad game, but in my heart, I still have some fondness for it. Maybe it was just the artstyle and fondness for the source material, but I feel like it did a pretty good job depicting Hell. Definitely needs fewer babies, though. Lots fewer babies.

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imunbeatable80

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@apewins: Thanks for the read.. yes i think the majority of people playing now fall into two categories.. either people who feel they have to play it as part of history, or people who already love the game and play it as nostalgia dopamine.

You are right that the time period plays a part, but i would argue that could be applied to every big release in the pre internet days. Mario 3, link to the past, even mario 64 and tomb raider were huge time and place games. Something that the whole world talked about at playgrounds, arcades, and classrooms. Sadly i cant time travel back to those times, but i try to replicate as best as possible by not using a guide to look up walkthroughs and just figure things out on my own... but you are right, i have years of experience and the zeitgeist to guide me through older games, and arent stuck playing the game exclusively for months on end.. does that benefit the game or not, i cant say.

I do think the zero death punishment feeds into the trial and error aspect of the game.. you can always try and learn without huge repercussions

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imunbeatable80

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@redwing42: oh shit.. called out! I'm actually really excited to play zelda 2, because i honestly think i will love it now that im older and understand aspects like leveling up.

I certainly didn't know about the magazine, i try to buy the physical games as close to complete in box as i can, but obviously this would not include the magazine you used or nintendo power which kids relied heavily on. That certainly would have made it easier, but at some point it might have pushed from being a helpful tool into a full guide.

As for dante's inferno, hopefully i don't dissapoint you.

And as always, thanks for the read.

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wollywoo

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I loved this game as a kid and I have a lot of nostalgia for it, but I'd never wish it on anyone now who hasn't already played it, except maybe with a guide. Having to burn every damn bush and bomb every wall in sight to make progress is not great game design. Actually, if someone just made a mod to give the bombable walls and burnable bushes a slightly different sprite, ala later Zeldas, it would be quite playable. Although admittedly it would make it a bit less exciting to find those secrets.

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SethMode

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@redwing42: oh shit.. called out! I'm actually really excited to play zelda 2, because i honestly think i will love it now that im older and understand aspects like leveling up.

If you DO play Zelda 2, there is a lot of weird shit to love, but man, good luck beating it. It's not as inscrutable as Zelda 1 on the whole (although boy it has its moments), but I COULD NOT beat it without save states because it has some truly INSANELY difficult moments...and when you couple that having a finite number of lives, and some moments where you just bang up against where you're supposed to go but still have to wade through loads of enemies...whew boy, it was just really something.

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imunbeatable80

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@wollywoo: Honestly that was the toughest obstacle to overcome. I came from zelda games where bombable walls looked slightly differenty or sounded different if you clinked your sword on them, obviously they had to learn those lessons from some where.. im also an item hoarder by nature, so using all my bombs to hopefully find secrets was tough, especially knowing that there was a monster that could only be hurt by bombs.

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imunbeatable80

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@sethmode: luckily for me, its on my "to play next" list because i don't have a physical copy of the game yet. I could play it digitally or on switch gamepass (or whatever its called), but i might be too tempted to cheat.

Plus i want to play it on original controllers and own it at some point, so ill just wait until i pull the trigger on an ebay copy

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sparky_buzzsaw

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Good read. I sound like a broken record on your posts in that I may not agree with the placement (I like Zelda much more than Megaman 2) but I can't fault your logic and you've backed it up well.

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imunbeatable80

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@sparky_buzzsaw: thanks, i appreciate it.. i knew before i started writing that i might be going against the grain by putting zelda lower on the list then most people would. I am curious if i got into zelda as a kid, how different my opinion would be

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Fluidk

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@wollywoo: I just replayed The Second Quest after not playing it for 30 years and never getting very far in it. It really solidified to me that

1)the original Zelda is the best Zelda by far

2) The “you have to burn every bush” thing is EXTREMELY overstated and exaggerated by modern gamers. The things you have to burn are generally hidden, but obvious. “A ring of something” “one thing is different than the rest” etc.

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imunbeatable80

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@fluidk: i know you werent addressing your comment to me, and i wont critique your choice of best zelda game.. but i will challenge your 2nd statement.

If you are just talking about the dungeon that is hiding under a bush then sure, i agree.. but not all secrets from burning bushes are obvious. They aren't required but you don't know that until after you have finished the game. The whole point of zelda is about exploring and finding secrets, once they introduce the idea that you can burn bushes to uncover secrets.. as a player, you are left to wonder what other bushes are out there hiding secrets that you are missing out on. If you introduce a mechanic you have to expect the player to engage in that mechanic.

I wouldn't design a game where you get a key item from shaking a tree, and then not expect the player to go around shaking other trees expecting similar results.

All that said.. i did like zelda, but in todays day and age it is not a perfectly flawless game

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bigsocrates

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#13 bigsocrates  Online

@imunbeatable80: "Once they introduce the idea that you can burn bushes to uncover secrets.. as a player, you are left to wonder what other bushes are out there hiding secrets that you are missing out on."

That's...the point though. The mechanic makes you want to go out and explore and believe that secrets may be around every corner. If there were a bunch of very obscure secrets required to advance (and there definitely are some opaque moments in the game) that would be bad design, but design that makes you want to explore and test things is...good actually.

The thing about The Legend of Zelda is not just that it was built for another time in terms of doing a lot of things first that subsequent games have done better, but it was built for a totally different environment in terms of how people engaged with games. Games were primarily played by children who not only would have lots of time on their hands to burn bushes but didn't have access to a lot of games, especially in Japan where there was no rental market. Children would play the same game for dozens or hundreds of hours and explore every nook and cranny trying to learn its secrets, and many console games responded by giving them secrets to explore. You act like Zelda's not hint secrets were a new thing, but what about Super Mario Bros? It not only had warp zones that you could access by running on top of the screen, but entirely invisible coin and 1UP blocks that you would only find if you randomly jumped at certain parts of the game. Those are even less signposted than Zelda's bushes and secret bombable walls. It's true that none are required for advancement, but neither are Zelda's un-signposted secrets. Most of them are just...secrets. Just like Mario's.

I realize that the whole "greatest video game" gimmick is tongue-in-cheek and mostly just there to help you organize your thoughts, but I think it's important to understand that it's not just age and technological advancement but also the context in which a game is released that influences how 'great' it is. If you get two games to play per year then Zelda's weaknesses turn into strengths. It makes Hyrule seem like a magical place you can visit again and again. If you're playing it partially to check it off a list so you can rate it and move on to other stuff when you have access to basically unlimited games with dozens of new titles coming out every week and many available for just a few dollars then it feels like frustrating filler.

There's a difference between bad design and design that just isn't what you're looking for at this particular point in your life. Zelda has a lot more of the second than the first. It does have some 1980s jank in it, of course, because it was doing a lot of things first, but while it's not a perfect game it's about as close as a game can get, especially when you throw in how novel it was at the time and the technical limitations.

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imunbeatable80

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@bigsocrates: Thanks for reading as always.. so i think my issue with burning bushes or pushing statues is both good and bad. I love the idea that there are secrets waiting to be found in this world, and that you go on essentially a treasure hunt looking for secrets because you dont know what it will uncover. If you can find a dungeon in one, then the sky is the limit... but because of that there will always be a thought in your head that you are missing something that could be required to complete the game, and if you approach it with that belief then making 100% sure you arent missing something means you have to do crazy due diligence to get that confident. It also doesnt benefit anyone that the candle can only be used once on screen, so there is a lot of back and forth walking just to try another bush.

I grew up playing old adventure games (kings quest, monkey island, quest for glory) so i know the pain where you miss something and it means starting over (Obviously not in MI). I just see the complaint levied a lot by people who are willing to defend og zelda to the death, that anyone complaining about the secrets in the game are too spoiled by current games (paraphrasing here), and thats simply not the truth. If you approach this game as if it was your first time through, without using a guide, then you truly don't know which bushes you can ignore attempting to burn and what statues/gravestones need pushing, its all trial and error. Which is fine, a lot of games use that as a mechanism (see adventure genre) but that doesn't also mean its a perfect design either. Intriguing, sure... exciting when you find a staircase (even if it is to pay for someone's door), yes... but also monotonous.

This is not really a critique on what you said specifically more just a continuation from my last comment.

But you do bring up mario, which has a ton of secrets.. but like you alluded to, none of it is required to progress. Its the equivalent of finding rupees in zelda.. hey this is helpful, but you can get by without this collection of them. Now if mario hid a key to a locked door in an invisible question block, and you had to search world 1-3 to find it before going on, then you would be encouraged to think that there are hidden blocks you have to find in every world in order to progress, which could really change how that game plays and feels.

As for the series as a whole.. yeah i hear what you are saying, but its impossible to take that into consideration when ranking a game. If we take into consideration time period a game released for or for whom, then we get into a lot of sticky situations. Can mario 3 be better than mario 1 since one had to come first to make way for the other? Do we say a snes rpg because it takes longer to beat then a modern game is better, because it was made for young kids who had more time on their hands? Otherwise we just end up saying pong, space invaders, pac-man, and donkey kong are the greatest games of all time and move on.

I'll end with this, because i feel like what i wrote makes me sound mad or argumentative, i swear im not and i love talking things out on these, because this list is more or less my feelings on a game and no one will agree 100% with my rankings. I liked zelda.. i put it at #10, and will easily stay in the top 1/4th of the list for a long time. I loved dungeon crawling, drawing my own maps, and finding secrets, but i did miss some of the quality of life improvements later zeldas have incorporated (cracks in walls etc). Some of those improvements come with advancement in tech and we can get into a whole different topic regarding what they could have done and what they were limited by. As it stands now though, Zelda (to me, after playing for the first time) is a good game, perhaps a great game, but not the greatest of all time.

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bigsocrates

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#15 bigsocrates  Online

@imunbeatable80: I really don't think the secrets issue is as bad as you are saying. You are thinking of it from a "well you might have to do this at some point so you're forced to do it constantly" perspective, but I don't think that's right. In Zelda you have a lot of options at any given point about what you might do, often with a new tool that the last dungeon has given you. Just because something was useful to advance last time doesn't imply it will be necessary to advance next time so you can just do whatever you have the tools to do and see where it takes you. You know, explore. That's how I played as a kid. I'm not saying it was never frustrating (it can be very frustrating) I'm just saying that the game itself doesn't require you to pick over every inch of the screen just because a couple of times some relatively conspicuous secrets are necessary to advance. The real lesson is to go look for conspicuous secrets, and you can pick stuff over if you want to.

In the comparison to Mario, the key from the invisible block wouldn't mean you have to search every inch of the screen for invisible blocks. It would mean that if there was another locked door you'd know that was a possible solution. In normal game play you'd probably run into the road block before looking for a way to solve it, and in Zelda as I played it I would exhaust my exploration options before trying to back track and look for secrets I might have missed (or I'd just explore for secrets because it was fun.) A lot of this comes down to play style.

I'm not going to defend the single candle usage issue or the fact that it could be frustrating to get enough bombs. Those are all just vestiges of the time it was made, and they wouldn't be done the same way now (as we know from the newer Zelda games.)

My point is not that you need to evaluate each game in the context in which it came out, which is impossible anyway. My point is that what the "greatest game" is depends not just on the time when you're playing but also your personal context. The greatest game for one person will obviously be different than that for another. For someone whose two hobbies are Mahjong and hunting we all know what the greatest game will be, and you really rated it poorly. But you've never played Mahjong while sitting in a deer blind (as far as I know).

Likewise even for you as an individual person the greatest game may depend on time and place. A game that requires hours of deep concentration might make a plane ride fly by, but be very unfun when you're trying to play while also watching a toddler. We all know that some games have a right time and place. I don't think that you lack knowledge of these things, which is why I say "greatest game" is inherently a tongue in cheek enterprise. It's inherently impossible.

My point here is that it's not just that Zelda's tech and game design have aged, but that it's a game designed for a different context as well. It's for a time when there weren't many games coming out, and games were very expensive so you had to make one you bought last a long time. Everyone got Zelda when it came out and it lasted for dozens of hours and that's what people wanted.

Think of it this way. Super Mario Bros. might be a better game today in part because you have so much to play and it's a game you can get through in a few hours, especially if you've played it before, and enjoy the music and levels and move on. Zelda, on the other hand, eats up a lot of your time and before you're done you're eager to move on to something else. But imagine if you were told you could only play 1 game for 3 months. Which would you pick then? It might be a different calculation.

That's why I'm saying context matters outside of just age and tech and the rest of it. The greatest game depends on the situation of the player, not just what's in the game itself.

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imunbeatable80

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@bigsocrates: all valid points.. it does come down to playstyle, and my playstyle is very much do everything you can before moving on. I do all side quests in games as soon as they are available, i always go the opposute way of objective markers and in zelda's case i fully used the tool i got before getting a new one. These are all my crosses to bear and even when i want to kick them, i can't and usually to a detriment of the game. I would have probably enjoyed ni no kuni more if i wasn't exhausting all side quests and dungeons.

All of that is in service to feeling like i found something gsme designers didnt want me to find. Which is a stupid concept, they wouldnt put a treasure here if they didn't want you to get it.

I do actively try not to look forward to the next game while currently playing something else. I want to give the game my full attention and not just rush to beat it. Obviously that differs from game to game and depends on how much side stuff is there to do and how much fun am i having while playing. In the yakuza games i am having fun in the world and will drag my feet longer, but in hard west i got to a point where i just mainlined the story (since i liked that and not the gameplay).

But yes, you are correct the "greatest game" now stands as what is the greatest game to me in this moment. If you ask 8yr old phil, bugs bunny and kickle cubicle would have been way higher on the list. Jaded 16yr old phil picks some indie game no one has heard of in an attempt to be different, but 34yr old Phil is attempting to think critically about how i enjoy playing it now, even knowing that newer games are always an arm's reach away.

Ultimately yes, i am but one person and having only written reviews on less than 1% of all games, no one else shares my exact rankings.

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bigsocrates

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#17 bigsocrates  Online

@imunbeatable80: Between you and @lapsariangiraff I am starting to feel like I am the only person who plays games by just doing the stuff I find fun. and skipping the rest if it's optional. I just played through Assassin's Creed 4 and I kept going like "are these assassination contracts fun? Nope. Then no more." Or "Do I actually need the health upgrades to make it to the end of this game? No? Then I am not going to waste time hunting for them." I did like 2 rowboat hunts and 2 shipwreck explorations and then quit because they seemed boring and repetitive. I don't really understand the impulse to keep doing stuff that isn't entertaining but it seems common. Maybe I'm playing everything wrong.

I think that it's basically impossible not to be influenced by how much there is to play, even if we fight the impulse, because at the back of our mind we know it's out there, and we never find ourselves in the situation where we've beaten a game and we HAVE to keep playing it over and over because there's nothing else to play.

Everyone has back logs, games can be had super cheap, it's just a different landscape.

I do understand that you're not actually trying to build a definitive list of the greatest games. I don't think that anyone who was legitimately trying to do that would play Mahjong Huntress before Tetris.

And of course the actual greatest game. I mean if you wanted your list to have ANY credibility at all you clearly would have started with that.

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