So earlier this week, The Onion AV Club released their Top 15 Games of the Decade, which broke down thusly:
15. SSX 3 (EA Sports BIG, 2003)
14. The Sims (Electronic Arts, 2000)
13. Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo, 2004)
12. Braid (Microsoft Game Studios, 2008)
11. Advance Wars (Nintendo, 2001)
10. Left 4 Dead (Valve, 2008)
9. Final Fantasy XII (Square Enix, 2006)
8. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar Games, 2002)
7. Ico (Sony, 2001)
6. World Of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004)
5. Portal (Valve, 2007)
4. Rock Band (MTV Games/Electronic Arts, 2007)
3. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Softworks, 2008)
2. Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004)
1. BioShock (2K Games, 2007)
Which isn’t a terrible list, even if it does veer randomly between artsy high concept stuff (like Braid) and stuff that clearly exists only because of its importance and/or wild popularity (The Sims). But as a guy who thinks about stuff like this way too much, I couldn’t help but notice some strange choices. For instance, I don’t know why Ico is on the list when Shadow of the Colossus was clearly that team’s best effort. If they just had to put a JRPG on the list, why on earth was it Final Fantasy XII–I’m not even sure if XII was the best Final Fantasy of the decade, much less the best game of the decade of its particular genre. Perhaps World of Warcraft belongs there because of importance, but if that’s a defining criteria why is Rock Band on the list over the original Guitar Hero? And is Vice City really the absolute apex of Rockstar’s art? Furthermore why Portal over Orange Box?
“But Nfinit”, you may say, holding a hand over your eyes as you shield your gaze from my divine manliness; “what games would you have picked as the top 15 games of the decade, and more importantly, why?” I’m glad you asked! Also I can easily stretch this out into three updates and play Dragon Age instead of spending time coming up with things to write about.
NOW WE BEGIN THE BIGREDCOAT TOP FIFTEEN GAMES OF THE DECADE
(Note: I’ve only had access to the PS3 for like eight months total and I have a blind seething rage for Nintendo. Otherwise this will be perfectly fair and accurate. Also this will be mainly console stuff, as the last relevant game my PC is capable of playing is Half-Life 2.)
15: F-Zero GX
I knew I wanted to put a sim racer in this list, but I also knew that if I did that I’d need to include a racing game that a normal person would want to play. It was either this or Burnout 3, and F-Zero GX wins due to its excellent rival racer system and because Sega. It’s probably the best arcade racer to appear over the past two console generations; and all the more legitimate as it actually was an arcade game at one point. Burnout is more chaotic fun and probably better for pick up and play, but the rubberbanding makes racing against the AI an exercise in futility.
14: Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Collectively Splinter Cell represents the only time the console industry got stealth gaming right, and Chaos Theory is the best (and least infuriating) of the lot. This is also by far the best thing to ever come out of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy properties; and if Ubisoft were smart they’d have used the break between this game and Splinter Cell: Conviction to re-release the Xbox 1 Splinter Cell games for modern consoles and remind everyone why Splinter Cell matters. The Splinter Cell games are some of the few games to ever successfully convey a true sense of tension– Yeah, Sam is capable of getting himself out of a jam, but its far better not to get into that jam in the first place and the whole process of covering up your mistakes means you’re actually invested in being careful, and dare I say it– stealthy. You’re a spy, not some sort of unstoppable force of nature who’s best off just wiping out the entire military installation on your way to the MacGuffin.
Chaos Theory also represents one of the very few times a western developer has managed to bring together the whole Hollywood-storyline-multiplayer-focus thing that has become de rigueur this console generation without forgetting to include a compelling and worthwhile single player component. Despite Chaos Theory’s outstanding multiplayer modes you won’t feel cheated if you ignore multi and only play the “real” game. Indeed, the two parts of the game are treated almost as equals. This is something we probably won’t see very often ever again thanks to mounting game development costs forcing developers into focusing on one side or the other.
13: Persona 3 FES
I had to put one JRPG up here, and I figured it may as well be the only JRPG of the past ten years that I actually enjoyed playing. That’s largely because Persona 3 took everything we knew about the JRPG genre and tosses out the window. The game isn’t based on some sort of high-magic version of pre-industrial Europe, for instance. It’s based in and around a modern-day Japanese high school. There’s only one real dungeon in the entire game and you’re only allowed in there maybe a third of the time you play, if you try to go in there too often you’ll get sick and screw up progress in the main part of P3 FES– which is a dating sim. In a genre where Squeenix is constantly trying to out-epic itself in an orgy of overwrought angst, P3 FES brings us a story of a bunch of awkward high school kids trying to figure out the whole social network thing while fighting demons and Japan’s terrifying high school examination schedule. If The World Ends With You is any indication, maybe the rest of the industry is taking Atlus’ cue.
12: Resident Evil 4
By this I mean the Gamecube, not the muddied PS2 port or the muddied PS2 port with waggle that appeared on the Wii, I mean the original interpretation as it appeared on the Gamecube. To say RE4 is the best Resident Evil game made is true, but also a little unfair to previous RE games. It’s like saying Dogma is the best Kevin Smith movie. Technically it’s true; but it’s also not in the same genre as anything else Kevin Smith ever did. Resident Evil 4 is not survival horror, nor does it ever intend to be. It’s simply one of the finest action games ever crafted and may well be the single best game to ever appear on the Gamecube. With the departure of Shinji Mikami from Capcom it’s uncertain if we’ll ever see another Resident Evil game live up to RE4’s level of excellence– judging from Capcom’s desperate efforts to ape RE4 with Resident Evil 5, likely not. This could be the last great RE game made until such time as Capcom finally reboots the series.
11: Katamari Damacy
I don’t know if any game I’ve played before or since has managed to exude the same feeling of unbound joy as the first Katamari game produced. Producer Keita Takahashi blended everything together perfectly– the controls, the art style, the dialog, the music, the universe itself– to convey a singular, pure concept of a game that wanted to be played and to be experienced and enjoyed by as many people as possible. Of course, Namco would take this pure, unfettered concept and attempt to make it into yet another stale franchise, with predictable results– but the first two Playstation 2 Katamari games remain true to their core. You start small, roll things up, become bigger, roll bigger things up, until eventually you’re carving great gouts out from the continental shelves. And you can do that in mere minutes using nothing more than two thumbsticks and controls so simple they make later attempts such as the Wiimote feel like a contrivance.
The only thing keeping me from placing this higher is that there’s not a whole lot of actual game to be had in Katamari. You can easily knock out the main portion of the game in an afternoon. It’ll be a throughly enjoyable afternoon, but it’s over all too soon nonetheless. Which is good, in its way– the first two Katamari games never had a chance to outstay their welcome.
10: Grand Theft Auto IV
I never got around to playing any of the Playstation 3 GTA games, and thus I’m full well welling to accept that GTA3 or Vice City or San Andreas may be better games; but GTA IV achieved something wholly remarkable for the realm of console games as far as I’m concerned, and that’s provide actual character development. Rockstar made you care about protagonist Niko Bellic; That’s something most television shows and even movies screw up with most of the time. Even most authors have a hard time showing a character grow and change through the arc of a story; Rockstar’s writers managed to do this in an action-oriented videogame with hardly a scrap of text to be found.
The game itself ain’t too bad, either, provided you don’t mind being bugged by a litany of lonely acquaintances wanting to hit you up for a game of darts when you’re in the middle of tearing through Central Park on a motorcycle while trying to get away from the police
9: Soul Calibur 2
Despite Capcom’s best efforts to kill the genre in the late 90’s, the fighting game has somehow inexplicably hung around, even occasionally managing to produce the occasional standout title– indeed, despite the genre being cluttered with stuff that’s inscrutable to anyone from the outside looking in, it’s managed to remain relevant, and I think Namco’s Soul Calibur series takes a lot of the credit for that. Simply put, the Soul Calibur games are the sort of games where any idiot can feel like they’re making good progress by randomly slapping buttons; yet there’s enough meaty game there to satisfy hardcore gamers as well.
If it wasn’t for the fact that it was released in 1999– and thus ineligible for the whole “decade” thing, I’d put the first Soul Calibur here instead. But while it’s not as important as Soul Calibur 1 was, Soul Calibur 2 has Ivy, and that more than makes up for Soul Calibur 1 providing the entire reason for the Dreamcast to exist.
(also, this over Street Fighter IV? Well, yeah. The Soul Calibur games are inherently more fun than Street Fighter games. Street Fighters are only really enjoyable at a high competitive level and are generally unplayable using a standard gamepad. Not only do you not need a $120 accessory to get full enjoyment from a Soul Calibur game; Namco’s actually went their way to provide something resembling a compelling single-player action RPG with SC2. Plus, you don’t feel the need to put in 80 hours of work with a single player before you feel like you know what you’re doing with SC2. The Soul Calibur games are the most accessable fighting games ever made, and as a result may well be the most fun you can have in a 1-on-1 fighter regardless of skill level. If you’re playing videogames as a job, Street Fighter 4 cant’ be touched.)
The past decade has been terrible for console shooters. Virtually everything new and interesting to come out of the genre has been a direct result of ZUN’s PC-only Touhou Project. It seems like the actual commercial games industry has moved on; the genre itself hasn’t been relevant on a mass market scale since the SNES. And not without good reason; shooter devs did a very through job of drilling down into their core fanbase to the point where the genre became an indecipherable mess to anyone new to games.
So to be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure if a shooter belongs on the list, save for the fact that shooters were and remain my first love in gaming and I wanted one here. On the console side there have been maybe three relevant shmups released in the past decade– Ikaruga, Gradius V and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. I happen to love all three of these games, but Ikaruga is the more inventive and interesting of the three.
All that being said– Ikaruga is an outstanding game and is itself one of the best shmups ever made. It’s polarity shot mechanic makes it as much of a puzzle game as it is a shooter, and on top of that involves nascent elements of rhythm based gameplay with its combo system. But sadly it’s still too difficult and too frustrating to ever be enjoyed by anyone who’s not a hardcore gamer who isn’t already familiar with and willing to put up with the various bullshit involved in playing shooters.
Indeed, Ikaruga is so inscrutable to anyone not in the core audience that I’m having a hard time justifying it’s position here at all. If you’re not into traditional console shooters and/or into having your teeth kicked in and trying to rationalize that as “having a good time”, put something more casual friendly here instead, like a nice friendly Sly Cooper game.
7: Forza Motorsport 3
I was hesitant to place something I’d recently played on this list, as I think a game needs time to be judged correctly– but let’s be honest, the Forza games have outclassed Gran Truismo 4 since the day Forza 1 was released, and there’s just no good reason to go back to Forza 2 thanks to unlimited rewinds. Forza 3 is simply the best (if not the most comprehensive) sim console racer ever made, at least until GT5 is released.
6: Knights of the Old Republic
I’ve only recently started playing Dragon Age, and I may well have to adjust this ranking once I’m done with it, but right now I think KOTOR represents the best game Bioware’s ever put out, and on top of that may well be the best Star Wars-related property to be released since Lucasart’s holy trinity of Tie Fighter/Xwing/Xwing vs Tie Fighter.
But beyond that, KOTOR represents the point where it became possible to take console western RPGs seriously. Yes, there was a PC version, and yes the PC version is probably the definitive version of the game– but at the same, Xbox KOTOR wasn’t a regrettable experience. Indeed, Xbox KOTOR felt decidedly like a console game, albiet a console game with the richness and depth of the very best Bioware RPGs. It’s an ability Bioware was able to expand upon in Jade Empire, Mass Effect and most recently Dragon Age. Thanks to KOTOR, console gamers are able to enjoy “grown up” RPGs without any compromise made to controls or immersion– the fact that it’s a damned fine game and one of the best sci-fi RPG games ever crafted is just gravy.
5: Ninja Gaiden 1
For the amount of technical innovation that’s popped up over the past two console cycles that represent gaming in the ‘aughts, there have been surprisingly few genuinely new gameplay genres that have popped up. In fact, I can point to maybe four off the top of my head– the motion control minigame collections that sprouted up as a result of the massive popularity of Wii Sports; open world sandbox games of the sort pioneered by Grand Theft Auto 3, Guitar/Band games as represented by Guitar Hero and Rock Band and my favorite of the bunch, the 3d brawler as introduced by Capcom’s Devil May Cry, and for my money Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox represents the height of the art form.
Ninja Gaiden does that very rare thing where the controls are so good you’re no longer aware you’re controlling the game. If you need to perform a forward diving roll to dodge under the katana of a spider ninja, it just sort of happens, nor are you aware you’re inputting the command to lop that ninja’s head off once you pop up behind him. Nor are you aware of the subtle interactions that must take place to correctly perform a wall run; the commands necessary to pull off the perfect Izuna Drop; the confluence of events to run up a wall and slash an demon in half on your descending arc. Ninja Gaiden perfects the concept of flow, and does so in such a way to make lesser action games feel dumb and clumsy by comparison. Not even Ninja Gaiden’s sequel for the 360 got this concept quite right– although next year’s Bayonetta looks quite promising indeed.
The only thing Ninja Gaiden doesn’t get right, and the only thing keeping it from being the best action game ever made, is it’s frankly unforgivably atrocious camera. While the ultimate goal of the game was to combine 16-bit action game simplicity with the complexity of a 3d fighter; the camera lets everything down, leading to cheap hits an otherwise avoidable deaths. It’s my understanding that Ninja Gaiden Black and Ninja Gaiden Sigma may have corrected this, but Ninja Gaiden 2’s camera was just as bad, I have a hard time believing Team Ninja would have regressed to an inferior, frustration-inducing camera for its sequel. In any event, it’s a fantastic game, perhaps the ultimate 3d action game– it’s just a shame that it’s difficulty and frustration-inducing camera keeps it away from anyone but the hardest of the hardcore.
Yes, it falls apart in the final act, yes it doesn’t really hold up in replays and yes the good/evil mechanic was largely over-hyped and underutilized, but man the first 3/4ths of that game was one of the best games I’ve ever played in my entire life. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that– it was uneven and frustrating in that regard, but the game had you traipsing around in a unique and mesmerizing universe complete with fantastic gameplay, better writing, and some of the most interesting and fully realized characters in any game before or sense, and all this in a freaking FPS, for chrissake. Bioshock is full of flaws, but the game that holds those flaws together is so good that it deserves its place in the top five.
Bioshock took a tired, stale genre and made it vital and interesting again– And while it couldn’t keep up the facade through the entire game, what was there was outstanding.
3: Fallout 3
Until such time as I get to reflect on the impact of Dragon Age: Origins, this is my favorite RPG of the generation, and in no small part thanks to the fact that Fallout 3 is one of the greatest aimless games ever made. Sure, you can follow the main story path of FO3, but that’s not the point and doing so shows a remarkable lack of imagination on the player’s part and entirely too much ambition– No, the point of Fallout 3 is just wandering about the wasteland until something incomparably fascinating happens your way. Perhaps you’ll stumble across a desperate caravan being hounded by relentless waves of radscorpions, or maybe a helicopter full of bad dudes in full power armor will drop on top of your head and start shooting everything that moves. Maybe you’ll be beset by a pack of rabid mutant space bears, or maybe you’ll attract the ire of a stubborn missile-wielding robotic sentinel that simply will not go away. Pretty much anything can happen out in the wasteland, but mostly they involve sudden instances of random violence instigated by angry men with laser guns. I’ve dropped a good 120 hours into this game and maybe 20 of those actually had something to do with the story itself, the rest has been simply wandering around and experiencing the barren, absurdly violent grandeur of a radiated and ruined Washington DC.
2: Orange Box
Half Life 2. Portal. Team Fortress 2– Individually, any one of those titles deserve a spot on any list of “Top whatever of the Decade”, the fact that they’re all bundled along with Half Life Episodes 1&2 makes for an absurdist farce of gaming awesomeness. Of course, there’s no good reason you should be playing any of these games on a console if your PC is capable of running them; but Valve did go out of their way to make the transition to game pad as painless as possible and as a whole this package represents something of a change in shift for Valve and their treatment of consoles as afterthoughts to viable platforms for development.
1: Shadow of the Colossus
If you were to ask me to sit down and show you one game to explain why I love gaming, it’d be Shadow of the Colossus.
From a standpoint of pure gameplay technique I can make no excuse for SotC to be placed so highly on this list– That honor would probably go to Ninja Gaiden. But SotC goes beyond that– It’s the extraordinarily rare case of a game that makes you give a damn about what’s happening within it, about the story (as admittedly thin it is) about the characters (exactly three, one of which is you; one of which remains unconscious through the entire game; one of which is a horse) and the world they inhabit. A lot is made of gaming press trying to validate the genre to some unseen higher entity as “art”, we’re constantly asking when we will we produce our own Citizen Kane, when will we produce a game that can bring someone to tears– I contend that
Shadow of the Colossus is art, or at least as close as we’ve come to it. I will admit to weeping openly while playing this game, caught up in the story of a lone teenage kid caught in the middle of a desperate gambit with entities far beyond his control to save the life of the girl he loves, of the sacrifices made; of the feeling of hurt and sorrow felt as you drive your blade into the heart of each of the 12 silent, unknowable titular colossi.
It is the sort of story that can only be told within the medium of games– And is unique for that, as at no point does Shadow of the Colossus lower itself to Hollywood aspirations. If this industry is to ever get over the inferiority complex that it’s brought upon itself by the constant comparisons it forces upon itself with the motion picture industry, its games like SotC that need to be looked to.