So here we are. The ball’s just about to drop on 2010, and while we’re not controlling games with our brains or Vulcan nerve pinching aliens on the holodeck just yet, it’s been a pretty great decade for games, all told. So I’ve written an arbitrarily numbered list of my favorite games of the past decade, because what else are you going to do to ring in a new decade? Your glamorous parties, oceans of alcohol, and prison cell slumber parties can wait. Read this list now.
My memory’s all right, I think. It’s not bad, by any means, but it’s also not great. As a result, looking back on a linear first-person shooter – for me – is kind of like looking back on a really good sandwich. Sure, I enjoyed it – as evidenced by the giant belch I expel shortly afterward, as I do after anything I truly enjoy – but I couldn’t in good conscience tell you about its different parts. It all just sort of runs together. So it’s a pretty big deal when – after only playing a shooter once – I can remember its every twist and turn with near-perfect clarity.
Half-Life 2 is the ultimate roller coaster ride. Each of its locales exudes an unsettling “strange-yet-familiar” vibe that I image would accompany an actual alien occupation of earth. Yet, more than that, when Half-Life 2 switches areas, the game changes. Rarely – with the exception of a few unfortunate vehicle sequences – does it ever force you to do the same thing twice. Other shooters are content to call their samey shooting galleries by other names and hope you won’t notice, but Half-Life 2 never settles into a predictable rhythm, and it’s head
crabs-and-shoulders above the rest because of that.
Also, if you didn’t scream while playing through Ravenholm, you’re lying.
Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
If life is like a box of chocolates, Zelda games are like a bag of M&M’s: each has its own color, but you’ll always end up biting into the same core. Yet in the end, Wind Waker had a bit more flavor to it than the rest – both inside and out. Its art design was whimsical, magical, and zany in all the right ways, while its open, predominately sea-covered world provided intrepid adventurers with more carrots than most sticks have room for.
I whiled away afternoon-after-afternoon languidly sailing wherever the wind would take me, hoping to stumble across some new adventure. I was rarely disappointed. Despite the game’s “let’s help Link prevent another apocalypse” plot, Wind Waker never lost its carefree, adventuresome spirit, and in an era where big open-world games have to be “dark, mature, and guns!,” Wind Waker was a salty breath of fresh air.
As I write this, there’s a 90% likelihood that I’m playing Peggle. And it’s not like I’m trying to be rude or anything by burying my face in a game while we have textual relations. It’s just that, on my list of needs – not wants – after breathing and before eating comes Peggle. It was an addiction years ago. Now it’s a part of me. Without Peggle, the Dashing Internet Figure known as “Nathan Grayson” does not exist.
So, what makes a little game about shooting silver balls at colored pegs so spectacular? Well, smart level design, a near-perfect difficulty curve, and a no-nonsense focus on quick, accessible fun play large roles, but the star of this show is Peggle’s presentation. The game rewards your every action – from hitting special pegs to utterly failing and missing every peg -- with lights, colors, music, score multipliers, and things of the like, culminating in a slow-mo explosion of rainbows set to the blaring tune of Beethoven’s “Symphony No 9.” This end level phenomenon, known only as “Extreme Fever,” is the 9th, 10th, and 11th wonders of the world.
Jet Grind Radio
Here’s one I don’t expect many people to remember. It’s something of an under-the-radar Dreamcast game, but honestly, I think the radar was seriously on the fritz when JGR first hit the streets. The game was one of the first to really employ the cartoony looking graphical style known as “cel-shading,” but – like many pioneers – it was also one of the best. Why? Put simply: style. As your main character – decked out in colorful, eye-catching threads and headphones – flew down the street in his Future Rollerblades, you plain out felt awesome. The game wasn’t just the end result of some artist’s willy-nilly paint-flinging “experiment,” either. Its brand of stylishness was completely coherent. Each in-game graffiti gang had its own tagging method, music, locale, outfit set, etc. And, of course, JGR was fun to play as well. Graffiti battles and fast, frantic police escapes were especially enjoyable, as were the simple acts of grinding and tricking off the city’s many landmarks.
Now, I’m going to be honest with you: as a child, my “rebellious phase” consisted mostly of the one time I decided to plant both of my feet on a skateboard and let my (former) friends Gravity and Inertia give me directions. After roughly 12 seconds, my rebellious phase ended with me sobbing in my mother’s arms.
But Jet Grind Radio made me feel like a rebel – with an actual cause that wouldn’t cause me to go red with embarrassment years later, no less!
Resident Evil 4
One of the greatest games of all time got one of the worst PC ports of all time, but – ignoring that – Resident Evil 4 is easily the best entry in its long and (mostly) excellent line. It’s interesting too, because most of the time, when a game removes a time-honored genre staple – like, say, the ability to move and shoot at the same time, or, you know, zombies – the whole thing falls to pieces. But RE4’s run-then-gun gameplay rarely ever frustrated, and formed the core of an utterly addictive experience.
As far as action shooters go, RE4 – while a reinvention of the Resident Evil series – nailed its new formula from the get-go, deftly mixing off-the-wall boss fights, “ohcrapohcrapohcrap” pacing, and RPG-like weapon collecting and upgrading, ultimately stirring up the winds that’d power the sails behind third-person shooters for years to come.
Let us also use this moment to honor the passing of one very important individual who leapt in the way of the proverbial rocket that is life. By which I mean a real rocket. That exploded. He died, in case that wasn’t clear. That sadly deceased man was Mike the Helicopter Guy. When all bets were off and Resident Evil 4 had me against the ropes, Mike swooped in atop his namesake and set his gattling guns to work against the not-quite-undead hordes that – seconds earlier – had me sounding the horn of Gondor and making my last stand. And as we skipped hand-in-rotor, sweeping that little European country clean of Plagas, Mike joked that I owed him a beer after we made it out of that hellhole. I, of course, responded in kind by saying “OH MY GOD A ROCKET JUST KILLED YOU.”
I’ll buy you that beer in heaven, buddy. I really will.
World of Warcraft
When World of Warcraft first landed, I didn’t know what to think. My childhood was equal parts Freddy the Fish and Warcraft II, and if not for Warcraft III, I may never have gotten into online gaming. World of Warcraft, though, was different. And to 16 year-old me – for some inexplicable reason – that also meant “unexciting until a sufficient number of positive reviews tell me that it’s not.” I’d spent my MMO infancy suckling at Everquest’s teat, after all. Six months of grinding, grouping, and griefing was enough for me, thanks.
After one month and two or three game of the year awards, though, I couldn’t resist any longer. So I put a crudely drawn star next to “World of Warcraft” on my Christmas list. Little did I know, however, that I was actually signing away two years of my life.
World of Warcraft’s introduction of actual fun – and some much needed streamlining -- to the tired old “grind, quest, level, loot” MMO circle of life was great, but it wasn’t revolutionary by any means. Sometimes, though, all it takes is a teensy change to the recipe to make people realize what they were missing out on all along. And boy did they ever notice. WoW itself may not have been a revolution, but it certainly sparked one. 11.5 million players and half of Activision’s overall income, after all, is nothing to sneeze at. Who wouldn’t want a slice of that pie?
And so, with execs licking their chops while inhaling the fumes of WoW’s massive success, the MMO market has grown into one of the sturdiest portions of PC gaming’s backbone. Which, admittedly, has given rise to a great many stinkers, but overall, has forced to developers to innovate in the space or risk forever living in WoW’s colossal shadow.
Check back on Thursday for Part Two!