It was maybe last September, when I finally beat EarthBound, that I thought "Yeah, I sort of can name my favorite games of all-time!" That was a special moment, beating EarthBound (more on that later!), because to me having a list like that, even if it's just for myself, is important. I'm all for the firm (that's what she said), unwavering commitment to something to the point that it's a character flaw and will no doubt get me in trouble.
You may or may not have read one of my woeful spats of indecision. "What should I play next? Whatever I start I need to fuckin' finish."
Anyway, I had my list. "Man I love Dtoid," I thought to myself. "Those guys churn out blog posts and analysis that just reeks of passion... and something else maybe. I wonder if I should... maybe..." So I started to chip away at this list, writing up a game or two when the mood struck me. And, eventually, I finished!
So, without further ado (pleaseyoudon'thavetoreadit'smostlydumbbullshit), the 'ol Top Ten. Sam style!
First played on Xbox 360, 2008
Where some games have gameplay and others have aesthetic, BioShock has both. In spades. And in terms of its world, designs, and thematic content, director Ken Levine’s magnum opus features some of my favorite science-fictional aspects across any medium.
The image of a Bouncer hulking along a leaking corridor, the distant echoes of a Little Sister calling out in a sing-song cadence is something so uniquely bizarre, haunting, and downright interesting it gives me goosebumps just to think about it.
But beyond the excellent character design, BioShock weaves a yarn encompassing the best of speculative sci-fi and horror, providing a spin on the computer-enhanced humans of cyberpunk literature (System Shock → BioShock; makes sense!) by telling the story of a utopia crushed under the weight of drug-addiction and body-mods. All this and still we’re wrapped up in its political commentary and simply-mystifying story of one man’s flawed vision and longing for freedom. It’s ambitious for any medium of storytelling, let alone video games.
The aforementioned gameplay BioShock pairs with its best-in-class story engages with its shooting mechanics and adaptability, weaving the narrative into the gameplay with the plasmids that allow such different approaches to combat. Whether you’re angling a Big Daddy between yourself and a horde of splicers, or bearing the brunt of buckshot with wrench in hand, BioShock manages to make its gameplay fun (even the often-repeated hacking minigame has a mesmerizing rhythm to it) and ever-changing to your desires.
Still, it all comes back to that image for me: A hulking diver’s suit, moaning like a whale, its yellow “eyes” the only glow against the cool blues and greens of the surrounding ocean floor. The crumbling art deco walls. The bizarre slices of americana in the echoing vending machines and storefronts. BioShock is a game that transports you to such a unique world, so fully realized, there’s nothing I can ask that wouldn’t have an answer. No character or bit of the world to point to that might not make sense. It lays down the rules, and sticks to them.
First played on Xbox 360, 2007
For many, Crackdown started and ended life as the game you bought to play the Halo 3 Beta. Not so for Sam!
I’ve gone through a phase with open world games. For awhile I wanted nothing but vast sandboxes to explore and muck around in; the allure of Grand Theft Auto, particularly playing online in IV, was that promise of freedom and shenanigans. Eventually the jig was up, and largely to this day I feel open world games (with exceptions) have run out of ideas, recycling quests and motifs.
Crackdown remains a fresh and fun experience for, actually, much the reason Breath of the Wild was and is such a joy. Crackdown gives you an objective: Kill the gangs. There are lieutenants that dot the map, and you can go about them in any order you choose. There’s no tremendous finale after you’ve wiped the last leader’s blood from your boots, no development. For many this might sound like a hollow experience. For the creative as well as the simple, this might sound like heaven.
For the same reason Breath of the Wild can feel so tranquil and ambient, Crackdown feels so free-wheeling and fun. You really don’t have to do a whole lot to “win the game.” There can be challenge, but the enjoyment comes from the simplicity of play, and play you do.
At its core, a game that plops you into an open world needs to have its movement down. Getting from A to B needs to be a lot of fun, or things are going to get dull real fast. Marvel’s Spider-Man (sorry, I’m committed to calling it that in full…) from Insomniac last year is as brilliant as it is because basic traversal is smooth as butter. Crackdown’s version of web-swinging is just jumping fifty feet in the air, smashing down into a crowd of gangsters (and hopefully not civilians), pinpointing their extremities with a light machine gun, then throwing a car at the stragglers. Games made me do it, mom!
First played on Wii U, 2014; First finished on New 3DS, 2018
Yeah EarthBound was a long-time coming for me. Longer even than how long it took me to play the game. What the hell is he even saying. I’ll tell you!
It’s like 2003 and I’m seven years old and I’m playing Super Smash Bros. Melee with my cousins. Hell of a game. But look, who’s that? I see Mario, there’s Metroid and Kirby, but who’s that… kid? “Ness?” I… yeah I’m playing as “Ness.”
I only got better at Smash, and only loved Ness more and more. His weird floatiness, the mix of psychic powers and a freakin’ baseball bat, his Onett stage all just transfixed me. I loved him! He was subconsciously one of my favorite game characters ever. But what’s an “EarthBound?”
Finally getting a chance to play it on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, I did quite dig it. The music, the enemies (the glare of those self-immolating trees haunts and amuses me in my dreams and nightmares), it was all just as kooky and weird as I’d read. But… I didn’t beat it. I was younger, I was dumber, I played too many games at a time, and I wasn’t really the kind of gamer yet who would enjoy a twenty year old game as much as a twenty day old game. I failed EarthBound.
Then just last year a new Smash was on the horizon, my psychic slugger was… sharpening his baseball bat. Okay, crack the knuckles, time to beat EarthBound.
And I did, and I almost cried.
Maybe it took growing up some, realizing how life is more than college and bubble gum, and entering a truly uncertain part of my life (Help, I’m still there!) to be so moved by EarthBound, but moved I was. It’s an epic adventure, but also so intimate and small at times you forget the world is at stake. It’s a subversion of gaming tropes and ideas, and a ripe example of postmodernism in gaming for its jabs at itself as being a video game. But more than anything to me, EarthBound is about being a kid. And… no I’m not crying!
God Hand (2006)
First played on PlayStation 2, 2009
This is the last of these little pontifications I’m writing, and it all makes sense now. I’m in the middle of replaying Shinji Mikami’s God Hand, its surf guitar hooks playing over in my head the past few weeks, and what I felt I sort of know.
God Hand might be my favorite game of all time.
It just… Well it makes me smile. When I’m perfectly ducking under some mohawk’d, tight-leather thug’s string of punches only to counter with my own string of slices and jabs, perfectly throwing in a guard-breaker when he thinks he can stop the whoopin’, well, it’s just fun.
But there’s a lot to God Hand under that fun. I could go on about how its aesthetic, with the overt homoeroticism of its enemies and characters is a revision of classic beat ‘em up designs. Or we could talk for hours about how, though you get by as in a lot of other brawlers--mashing one button--the results of said mashing are left entirely up to you. String a pimp slap into a hand-stand kick? Sure. See how far that gets you, but sure. You do you. We could talk about how God Hand was the closing act of Clover Studios, here for a good time, not a long time. God Hand has become a bit of a fixture in the community these days, but initially sales outside of Japan were poor, and reviews ranged from positive (And if an enemy is down but not out, go ahead and stomp him over and over till he stops moving, GameSpot 8/10) to positively trashing (It really doesn't make any sense that your health isn't refilled, IGN 3/10).
There’s so much we could talk about when we talk about God Hand. I might take it upon myself to bother you all by doing just that. For here and now though just know this: God Hand’s style is impetuous.
Halo 3 (2007)
First played on Xbox 360, 2007
It was recess in, I guess sixth grade, when my mustachioed, tall father walked across the schoolyard to hand me a note. Got it. What did he get? My Halo 3 Legendary Edition, the father that he is. Swooping in early at a Best Buy, my hell of a dad snatched up that hunk of plastic MJOLNIR armor for his geeky kid.
Halo as a franchise was a major part of my childhood. Nintendo was always my first, but discovering Combat Evolved and Halo 2 were steps towards maturity for me; Whoa this game has guns, and if you keep shooting the little orange guys’ bodies blood keeps coming out… Playing Combat Evolved for the first time I melee’d some poor grunt’s corpse until his blue life’s blood expanded to a massive pool. It was just so odd for me to be exposed to such violence in a video game, where the worst thing I’d seen before was Link lunging at some skeletons.
But Halo 3 in particular, coming well into my love for the franchise and sci-fi in general, fulfilled something beyond the breath of what games could depict. I won’t soapbox, but I wasn’t a particularly social kid. I got along with everyone, people liked me, but I’ve always felt a degree of loneliness, and anxiety that trails me to this day. For a kid who felt a disconnect, Xbox Live was an outlet. And everyone who was anyone was playing Halo 3.
Hop into a custom game, already filled to the brim with friends of a friend. Set up a team and go matchmaking for those sweet, coveted ranks. Pair up with your best buddy for a night of Team Doubles. Best buddy, almost literally. Through Halo 3 I met at least two good friends who I kept in touch with for a long time, and still talk to now and then. I even made friends in school through Halo; kids bond with their football team, I bonded with my Halo mates.
I haven’t even touched on the outstanding campaign and its epic scope, accompanied by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s iconic score. The beautiful, scarred landscapes of an Earth at war. The excessive wealth of multiplayer content, both in terms of legendary maps and game modes. All with some of the tightest first-person shooting and vehicular combat I’ve had the good fortune to experience. Objectively, Bungie ended their trilogy with a package as complete as one could ask for, mechanically brilliant and thematically resolute. Subjectively, they further tightened a community that I was felt was for me, and helped me grow.
First played on Nintendo GameCube, 2011
How do you start to talk about Killer7? Due in large part to Nintendo Power (RIP; a fond memory of my childhood) I was turned on to some weird game with a luchador and this, strange, strange art style that struck my little eyes like a bullet to the face. Toss around names like “Quentin Tarantino” and my little novice-film buff mind is obsessed. For as much as Goichi Suda is superficially compared to filmmakers like Tarantino (basically, any movie with violence and visual or linguistic pizzazz) his work is far, far more interesting.
That said, I don’t think I could articulate to you what Killer7 drives at. There’s a dystopian commentary in there somewhere, with the crux of it being shady relations underlying peace between the US and Japan, with no shortage of cult leaders, sentai teams, and suicide bomb viruses to keep things exciting.
I think there can be a lot of pretension amidst contemporary art filmmaking; sure you can hold a static camera shot for five minutes and argue it’s deep, and often times it is. And you know what, maybe I’m just too dumb to realize its significance. But whereas I can feel alienated or dismissive of some high art, Killer7’s ambiguity has never made me want to reject or “disprove” it. Suda’s writing and world-building has only awed me with what I perceive to be a truly deep, absolutely unique work of art. Built on conventions found in games like Resident Evil and traditional rail shooters, paired with stark character designs, cinematic camera angles, and an eclectic score by master Masafumi Takada, the experience adds up to nothing short of a masterpiece of the medium. Master! A masterpiece! A piece of the master!
Metal Gear Solid (1998)/Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
First played on PlayStation 2, 2008
Ties are cheating, but less so when they involve games of the same series. I’ll defend myself further by mentioning that Metal Gear is my favorite video game series. Period.
There’s so much I love about these games, between Kojima’s epic, convoluted narrative, the utterly gorgeous conceptual art and design of Yoji Shinkawa, and the intricacies of gameplay (ice cubes in Metal Gear Solid 2’s Tanker Chapter melt when you knock over the bucket, and at different rates depending on their proximity to each other). They hit personal tastes of mine on so many different levels, but it’s worth exploring just why I can’t decide between the first Metal Gear Solid and Snake Eater.
The original (or, I guess, “reboot” it would have been considered in ‘98, right?) has something that you can only appreciate years later, once Kojima’s epic has been told to relative completion: MGS1 is small. Weird to think of it that way, right? But the events of the first game in the Solid line are inciting incidents, in a way. Though by time we’re in endgame mode in Guns of the Patriots, we’re reacting to events and revelations, mostly, from Sons of Liberty, the Shadow Moses Incident is a pivotal plot point, and something of a singular event. Dedicating an entire game to a single facility’s takeover, and the fallout of that event, is a bold move in the grand scheme of Metal Gear’s epic, decade-spanning timeline. Besides the narrative precision, Metal Gear Solid features some of the series most iconic characters. Besides introducing series regulars Meryl Silverburgh and Ocelot, the “boss gauntlet” on display here is just out of this world good. Hulking Vulcan Raven and his freaking minigun; dueling Sniper Wolf across a snowfield. And he comes up all the time, people just won’t shut up--and I won’t either: Psycho Mantis is one of the coolest video game characters of all time, and one of the most original and interesting boss encounters in any game, ever.
Oh, did I say the first Metal Gear Solid had great bosses? Snake Eater’s Cobra Unit make the Sons of Big Boss look like moody high schoolers. They’re highly experienced and seemingly supernaturally-gifted soldiers under the tutelage of The Boss, a legendary special forces soldier whose ties with player character (Naked) Snake culminate in one of the most dramatic battles of the series. Each encounter plays differently, and each one memorable for one reason or another.
The Cobras highlight one of my favorite aspects of the Metal Gear world, and that’s the meeting of the supernatural and the science-fictional, and then merging that with hilariously-authentic military jargon and protocol. Hideo Kojima will insist on having Snake explain the machinations of a handgun, letting us all know he’s done his research, then next thing you know some guy is flinging killer bees at you; you’ll scratch your head wondering just how many times they’ll say “GRU,” when suddenly you’re being electrocuted by some masochistic Soviet colonel. It’s a balance of extremes that, on paper, shouldn’t work. Oversaturate your audience in minor details and authenticity, then mix in a cocktail of nanotech and artificial intelligence..? And yet it’s the most captivating saga in gaming, for me.
Metroid Fusion (2002)
First played on Game Boy Advance, 2003
The most-terrifying game ever made? Well if you're six years old in a dark car on the way to Florida, ch-yeah!
Metroid Fusion is one of my earliest gaming memories. I got it with my big chunky GameBoy Advance as an additional present and surprise for our family trip down to the land of Disney and all-you-can-eat buffets. I've always been a sci-fi guy, since my early days of being transfixed with the snow speeders in Empire Strikes Back. But Metroid Fusion got to me a few years before Alien did.
"I'm in space and I'm scared." How could you not be! The SA-X, Samus' reanimated, parasite-infused suit of iconic armor stalks you with a menace and invulnerability that would make Resident Evil 3's Nemesis blush! Atmosphere, that's what it was. It remains such to this day, but Metroid Fusion was my introduction to atmosphere in video games. Being submerged in a world that wasn't just random races through the Mushroom Kingdom, or blocks of Tetris. This was a lonely, hostile environment, filled with weird monsters and, I only appreciate it now, beautiful pixel art and haunting music.
Like the Metal Gear games, the Metroid franchise holds a special place in my heart. I love many of its games, but none more than Metroid Fusion.
First played on Nintendo GameCube, 2002
Nostalgia is a hell of a thing. An anecdote: Christmas morning, 2001. I’m five years old, and we’ve reached the end of unwrapping the final presents. A young Sam is happily sitting amongst paper tatters when, a jingle rings out from downstairs, the hallway with the front door. “What could that be? The big jolly man himself..?” Both of my parents were upstairs, present. Dad goes to investigate, and comes back with another box. A… cube-shaped box.
That GameCube remains one of the most joyful gifts I’ve ever received. And what game accompanied it? You bet.
Pikmin enamored me, a kid who loved weird-nature (I loved bugs, fascinated with their alienness; I might have been that kid). Its titular creatures were charming, the music soothing, and the gameplay… kind of punishing. Alongside the Halo games, Pikmin was the one game my father and I played diligently. We’d stay up late, exploring and figuring the game out.
One of my fondest gaming memories was when we discovered the poison mushroom enemy. Another story: We encountered the creature, a massive, gas-spewing mushroom, initially without any of our little creatures in tow. We had Olimar dance around the ‘shroom, it spewed gas that didn’t seem to do much. Huh, weird.
Later we returned with a small sortie, nonplussed by our fungal friend (foe). The gas spewed but this time… oh dear god. What had no effect on Olimar (he’s wearing a helmet! we should have known!) in turn transformed our adorable party members into vicious killers which turned on their captain, latching on and beating him to death. I was… deeply, deeply disturbed.
Pikmin has remained an absolute favorite because of the strong memories I have of it. Even the excellent Pikmin 2 and 3. I remember the summer Pikmin 2 released, the anticipation, finally getting my hands on it. Perhaps not the typical entry point, but Pikmin made me the Nintendo fan I am today, endearing me, entertaining me, and truly inspiring a sense of wonder and curiosity only realized in video games.
Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
First played on PlayStation 2, 2005
Shadow of the Colossus comes up on a lot of favorites lists, and a lot of greatest lists too, and there’s a distinction there. Shadow of the Colossus is objectively a milestone for video games. As a deconstruction of “the boss battle,” Shadow strips the notion of combat in a video game to its most-exciting element. Then, given the luxury of focusing solely on the sixteen colossi encounters, Ueda and Team Ico are allowed to make each one a unique experience in itself, with novel gameplay mechanics and one-off concepts that couldn’t be sustained across the hundreds of foes that litter other games.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning the incredible 2018 remake by Bluepoint Games, which takes Team Ico’s masterpiece and refines some of the gameplay and smooths out technical issues. My little old PS2 could only churn out those vast landscapes at such a rate.
But for its gameplay, whether it frustrated you or you embraced it, Shadow of the Colossus remains a fresh, remarkable experience for the way playing is merged with being told a story. There are cutscenes and monologues, though they’re often mysterious and minor. But really, Shadow of the Colossus is the equivalent of a mood piece. Kow Otani’s melancholic score occasionally chimes in, otherwise it’s you and Agro, your loyal steed, and the whistling of the wind. The colossi themselves wail in anger and agony, with the score taking rousing turns when appropriate. All of this masked in a smoky, dark-but-not-oppressive realm of intrigue and, to a degree, terror. Things are just too quiet. By the time Wander is coated in the black blood of all sixteen titans you realize it’s too late. Sometimes there are monsters where you least expect them.