These days I don’t have much time for video games, and I wonder at times if I’ll hold on to the hobby in the years to come. So I thought that now would be a good time to throw together a top ten list reminding myself of why I loved this medium in the first place.
My only rule was a simple, but painful one: to have only one entry per franchise. This was necessary in order to prevent it from getting gummed down by Final Fantasies. I also tried to put an emphasis on replayability: there are a lot of mindblowing games that I have no desire to return to, and that’s just a tad too ephemeral for this kind of list.
Anyway, throwing together this list has driven home how I’m increasingly a man of narrow tastes these days: I like my RPGs and my platformers.
10. Sonic Mania (PagodaWest Games/Headcannon, 2017)
2017 may have been my favourite year in gaming yet. I don’t think there’s ever been a year where so many games that could easily make my top-ten list were just popping off the shelves.
A case in point: Sonic Mania is, as far as I am concerned the definitive 2D Sonic experience, the one that so eloquently sums up everything which made the little blue guy great in his Sega Genesis heyday while pushing ahead to even greater heights.
Which means that it’s a completely ludicrous, overstuffed and borderline incoherent platformer. But when I play Sonic, I’m not looking for eloquent perfection, I’m looking for a wild ride and a killer soundtrack. And Sonic Mania delivers just that; it is, as the kids these days say “extra.”
9. Hollow Knight (Team Cherry, 2017)
Another case in point: Hollow Knight is the best Metroidvania I have played since Super Metroid. It’s also a Dark Souls homage that I like more than Dark Souls. It distilled everything I loved about those two titles and added cute, grotesque bugs on top. A real winner.
8. Star Fox 64 (Nintendo, 1997)
Not that this one needs much introduction, but I remember how revolutionary the idea of a rumbling controller seemed at the time to a kid like me – such verisimilitude! Of course, there are many other games that more accurately simulate the experience of flying a plane, and there are shoot-em-ups which are a great deal more challenging and strategic, but are there any which are just this much……fun (I actually don’t know, given that I never played too many of these games)? And if we were to judge solely by replayability, Star Fox 64 would have to take the top slot: you can clear it in under an hour, but so much effort on Nintendo’s part went towards making it an increased pleasure to return to again and again.
And over two decades later, it still is.
7. Mega Man X (Capcom, 1993)
There are other Mega Man titles that could be here, but this is the one I’ve been playing since my childhood; this is the one which made me a connoisseur of angsty anime robots. And, honestly, I think it nails the classic Mega Man formula better than the original series did, though the X sequels failed to maintain the same consistency in quality that the original has always had.
6. Chrono Cross (Squaresoft, 1999)
This will probably be my most controversial decision. I picked Chrono Cross over its beloved predecessor, Chrono Trigger.
Now, I don’t deny that Trigger is the better game – it more or less brought the old-school JRPG approach to near perfection, whereas Cross has janky gameplay and a story which never really gels into a coherent narrative. But Cross is a game which is more interested in being experimental and ambitious than it is in being perfect, and what it achieves in that regard is something which is unlike any other RPG I’ve come across. It is a weird, mind-bending, atmospheric game where you have playable characters like an undead clown, a luchador priest and a space alien (to name a few), and something about that just speaks to me, y’know?
5. Bangai-O Spirits (Treasure, 2008)
Speaking of weird games, Bangai-O Spirits lets you play its levels in any order you like; the entirety of its story is contained within the tutorial; you pilot a giant robot, but wind up fighting things like ants and baseball players; framerate slowdown is a key gameplay mechanic; it has a level editor, and you can share your homebrewed levels with other players via soundwaves (no, really); there’s an ample amount of collectible fruit. 10/10.
4. Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994)
There’s no accounting for nostalgia: Super Metroid was one of my earliest gaming experiences, and certainly the first complex one which I needed to sink my teeth into over a long period of time. It was the first game which gave me a sense of discovery and awe in playing it. The dang thing’s so well-known that I don’t know what else I could add.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017)
Truly, Breath of the Wild is an overhyped game. And like other overhyped games, I suspect its future will go something like this: as more and more people become aware of its flaws and become bored with its oversaturation in gaming culture, a backlash will form, declaring it to be “actually terrible” and some other entry to be the “best” Zelda game. Then, some time after that, people will come around and be like, “hey, it’ may not be perfect, but it’s still really great, guys.”
So let’s get the bad stuff out of the way: if you’ve done one Divine Beast dungeon, you’ve kinda done them all, a lot of those combat shrines are copy-paste design, and some of the sidequests are just busywork.
But still, but still: Breath of the Wild is a great summation of the entire 3D action-adventure thing that Zelda kicked off way back with Ocarina of Time. It may or may not be the best Zelda, but it’s my personal favourite.
(It does have the best soundtrack, though)
2. Cave Story (Studio Pixel, 2004)
Cave Story isn’t the best indie Metroidvania out these days – I mean, Hollow Knight is sitting right over there – but it has a certain…je ne sais quois which no other 2D platformer has for me. There’s something about its goofy, childlike world which touches my heart. A something which makes me want to rank it even higher than Super Metroid itself. I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Is it the jet-pack?
1. Final Fantasy VI (Squaresoft, 1994)
This probably isn’t a surprise. Final Fantasy is my favourite video game franchise. The difficulty, though, is that a lot of the entries could easily vie for the number 1 slot. So I had to think hard about which one could truly be the most representative and special for me. I-IV were a little before my time, while X-XV are all a little too different and flawed to be definitive. V-IX all fall in that nostalgic, Goldilocks zone.
From then on, I whittled it further. IX is lovely, but the combat is just a tad too creaky. VIII is deeply innovative, but never succeeds in selling the epic love story at its core. V may be the most consistent FF of them all, but I’ve played it the least out of the V-IX crew.
That leaves us with VI and VII, which I’ve always thought of as siblings: they do share a lot of ideas in common, and have a similar feel to the rhythms of their gameplay. What it then boils down to is this: Terra, Locke, Celes &co have, over the years, been a more fun cast of characters to return to than Cloud, Tifa and whathaveyou.
But from the opening sting on its soundtrack to its spectacular final boss fight, Final Fantasy VI is just such a complete adventure. Its individual ingredients have all been done better elsewhere, but never have they been cooked together just so.
So if I can only have one Final Fantasy here, then I’m sorry, VII but I have some Espers to collect.