This is mostly just a repost of the top 15 list, for the sake of achieving even greater definitiveness and appeasing my desires of obsessive list making. There definitely won’t be a top 25 list ever; that’d just be silly.
20. Bangai-O Spirits (2008)
Briefly: You can share custom designed levels through sound recordings
Bangai-O Spirits is pretty much the only giant mecha game that matters, and the only one, as far as I can tell, where game slowdown is an intentional aesthetic choice. It’s a frankly baffling experience, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
19. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995)
Briefly: Babysitting is a tough gig when you’re a dinosaur
Why yes, I do sometimes play Nintendo games that aren’t Super Metroid.
18. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)
Genre: Military/Stealth Action
Briefly: Intro. to Postmodern Aesthetics
What do you do when you find yourself with a carte blanche, developing one of the most anticipated sequels of all time, a game which many bought a Playstation 2 just for the sake of playing it? If you’re Hideo Kojima, you use all that clout to make a postmodern deconstruction of the first game, and even extend your meta-commentary into the game’s own marketing. A lot of people didn’t appreciate the bait-and-switch, and a lot of people were just plain baffled by what was, on the surface level, one of the most bizarre stories ever told in a mainstream video game.
For myself it remains one of the most memorable 10 hours or so of gaming, and no amount of future retcons or backpedaling in the series can take that away.
17. Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Briefly: Convincing people that RPGs are actually cool
I like to rip on FFVII a lot, but the fact remains that it is, for better or worse, the most influential game in shaping my own tastes. A substantial amount of the games on this list would not be here were it not for this one. Heck, I might not even still be a gamer if FFVII didn’t blow my mind back in the day. It’s the most nostalgic entry on this list.
16. Chrono Trigger (1995)
Briefly: The Dream Team
It’s the JRPG for people who don’t like JRPGs, kinda like how The Dark Side of the Moon is the prog rock album for people who don’t like prog rock. But because I like JRPGs, I have to take it down a few notches.
15. Deadly Premonition (2010)
Developer: Access Games
Genre: Survival Horror(?)
Briefly: I have no idea
Few games are as inspiringly bad as Deadly Premonition. Few games are so downright charming in their lack of professionalism. A videogame homage/ripoff of Twin Peaks, Deadly Premonition is a surrealistic small-town murder mystery which manages to mash up horror and black comedy in an experience which ultimately defies description or explanation. It’s a game where the main character is introduced while in the middle of an argument over Tom and Jerry…. occurring while he drives his car and uses his laptop on a rainy night. Cool jazz music plays in the background.
14. Mega Man X (1993)
Being just a bit too young to experience the classic Mega Man series while it was still fresh, the X games were my introduction to the franchise. As such, I didn’t even realize that Mega Man X was already an attempt to reinvigorate what was, by 1993, already a somewhat stale formula by injecting it with large doses of 90s attitude and angst. And the first game may well be the most successful result of such dubious methods: a fast paced, intense piece of 2D platforming with the franchise’s rock & roll mentality cranked up do eleven. Ironically, X would wind up diving even quicker than its predecessor, but for one glorious moment, all was right with the world.
13. Super Metroid (1994)
Briefly: The Alien to Halo’s Aliens, I guess
While the first Metroid helped introduce the idea of organic, interconnected level design, Super was the one that perfected it. This game is all about the thrill of discovery, rewarding players for approaching its world and gameplay mechanics in an exploratory, almost archaeological manner. Which is probably why there are people who have pored over it with an amount of study and devotion more suited to a PhD thesis. I’ve never been that enthused about Super Metroid, but I love it all the same.
12. Mega Man 2 (1988)
Briefly: Destroy untold numbers of cute, googly eyed robots in the name of everlasting peace
Oh how the mighty have fallen. Mega Man 2 has been knocked from the top of the hill all the way down to slot number 6. Which is to say that it is an excellent game offering clean, wholesome, unpretentious fun. It’s also the first ‘hard’ game that I mastered, which I suppose is a milestone of sorts.
11. Final Fantasy XII (2006)
Developer: Square Enix
Briefly: It was as if millions of fanboys suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.
Final Fantasy has almost always been a series with a bit of an identity crisis, but by the time it reached the double digits things had really gotten out of hand. FFX broke series tradition by getting its own direct sequel in the form of X-2, while XI was an MMORPG. XII saw the series breaking out of its own subgenre by absorbing a heavy western RPG influence while allowing maverick developers Yasumi Matsuno and Akitoshi Kawazu a place at the helm. While this was done to the chagrin of many fans, for me the result was the series’ grandest entry, offering the most fully realized world in the series as well as the most mature narrative.
10. Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
Developer: Team Ico
Briefly: Poking a lion with a stick.
Shadow of the Colossus is an arthouse deconstruction of The Legend of Zelda which never trades emotional earnestness for intellectual posturing and never forgets that it is supposed to be fun. It is the game responsible for getting me back into gaming in my adult years, for better and worse, and it will always have a place in my heart for doing so.
9. Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Genre: Survival Horror
Briefly: Years of therapy
It’s still the scariest video game I’ve ever played. Silent Hill 2 uses every dirty trick in the book to worm itself under my skin and stay there. But it’s not just a few hours of cheap scares; it’s also a heartwrenching morality tale about the horror of unrepented guilt and the way in which people can turn their lives into a living hell. Silent Hill 2 goes to some seriously dark places, is almost too effective in its execution and severity, making it the most emotionally draining entry on this list. But if you want an excellent example of games as art…
8. Dark Souls (2011)
Developer: From Software
Genre: Action RPG
Briefly: Hold my beer and watch this
I still haven’t finished this game; it’s an experience I want to savour, and the moment I run out of new things to see will be a sad one indeed. There’s a feeling of discovery to it that I haven’t experienced since the days when Super Metroid was new. It’s pretty much the definitive action RPG, in my mind. So much so that I don’t even have much interest in the sequels. I have a hard time even believing that there are things you can do with this basic premise which weren’t already covered here.
7. Resident Evil 4 (2005)
Genre: Survival Horror
Briefly: Bad one-liners
Like Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil 4 was influential to the point of becoming obnoxious, with virtually every third-person shooter hence attempting to crib from it with varying levels of success. It also killed off what was left of the traditional survival horror game by reimagining it within the action genre. Gone were the days of Resident Evil 2 where the player would feel helpless and vulnerable as they navigated rookie cop Leon Kennedy through a zombie apocalypse. Now Leon is a battle-hardened secret service agent ready to take down the forces of darkness in a gleeful, campy celebration of bad action and horror movie cliches. The first boss fight has you harpooning a giant fish, and it only gets more ridiculous from there.
6. Final Fantasy V (1992)
Briefly: Diversify your portfolio
FFIII struck gold when it allowed players to change their characters’ classes at will, but didn’t really know what to do with the idea. FFV took it up and became a real rarity: an RPG game that gives players the freedom to play the game however they want without becoming opaque and overly complicated in the process. It’s a game where you can defeat almost any boss by throwing money at them, and it comes with an endearingly bad fantasy story to boot.
5. Mega Man 3 (1990)
Briefly: Damage enemies by pirouetting into them
For a long time, I didn’t like this entry as much as Mega Man 2. While its predecessor was a tight, near perfect platforming experience, Mega Man 3 felt a bit bloated and featured more rough edges. And, indeed, although the title was made with a bigger budget and greater ambitions, it was also a rush job which was shipped in a less than complete state (even the debug features were left in).
And yet I’ve come around to admiring its achievements; although there are some questionable design choices in it, there’s also a sort of exploratory freshness to it all that keeps me coming back. Sure, for instance, the developers didn’t quite think through the ramifications of mapping the MM2 bosses’ movesets onto the doc robots, but those doc robot fights help to add a greater feeling of epic achievement to the proceedings. Sure, Rush Jet kinda breaks the game, but it breaks the game in the most fun way possible, etc.
And, really, it’s becoming increasingly hard for me to imagine Mega Man without his pet robot dog Rush anyway.
4. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (2008)
Briefly: Incomprehensible song lyrics
What if Agatha Christie made a JRPG?
3. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
Genre: Military/Stealth Action
Briefly: What they didn’t tell you about the Khrushchev years
After all the excitement, all the incredible highs and lows of The Phantom Pain, I will still acclaim Snake Eater as the crowning jewel of the Metal Gear franchise. It is the installment where video game auteur Hideo Kojima’s ambitions both as a game designer and movie director were most perfectly realized. Set in a fictional Russian jungle during the cold war, the game unfolds like a bizarre mash-up of 60s spy fiction tropes and characters who seem to have wandered in from a forgotten Marvel comic. Kojima’s writing, which is at its most giddy and least pretentious here, runs with all the campy possibilities of the setting, and it’s just a blast. The gameplay, meanwhile, keeps the linear focus of the earlier titles while introducing an entirely new depth to the series’ core stealth mechanics. The game will let you get away with virtually any strategy you can think of, provided you have the skill to pull it off. It’s like the FFV of action games or something.
But the real reason that Snake Eater is at the number three slot is its boss fights: this game features the most impressive lineup of bosses I’ve ever seen in a game. I came for the stealth mechanics, but I stayed for the one hour sniper duel with the photosynthetic old man.
2. Final Fantasy IX (2000)
Briefly: Feelings and stuff
There are many good objective reasons for why a game like FFIX shouldn’t be at #2: the combat moves at a creaky, slow pace, some of its gameplay ideas are poorly implemented, and the overall game is really just a fanservice-fueled retread of everything FFIV already did.
And yet FFIX remains a most endearing experience to me. It is one of those works which is greater than the sum of its parts, where everything comes together in a manner that just plays at my heartstrings like almost no other game. It’s like The Last Unicorn of JRPGs: a bittersweet, haunting adventure that earns its sentimentality the hard way.
Even if it is, as most video games are, more than a little bit silly.
1.Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2 (2004-5)
Briefly: Even more feelings and stuff
If FFIX is a cartoony game that disguises a dark, melancholy side, DDS is the grimdark cyberpunk dystopian drama with a sentimental side. Both games took me by surprise in their emotional impact, and both come close to my platonic ideal for what a JRPG should be, in their gameplay, their story, their soundtrack and art design, etc. They’re both firing on all cylinders. Deciding between one or the other on holistic grounds is very difficult, but in pure game mechanics, I prefer DDS’ Press Turn battles to FFIX’s Active Time Battles. And, I suppose that when it comes down to it I am ultimately more a child of sci-fi than fantasy, although even that’s a close call.