Hey it’s this topic again. But it’s been a long time, and the past year or so has been enough of a gaming watershed for me to feel excused in revisiting the thing. Even so, there shouldn’t be many surprises, as most of these games have come up before on the blog.
Anyway, it’s gradually dawning on me that my taste in gaming solidified back in the PS2 era. What I’ve been seeing as something of a Renaissance in game design in recent years is arguably just a resurgence of games reflecting that era or earlier. So maybe I’m really just getting one last hurrah before I default to complaining about kids these days and their VR headsets.
- Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2 (Atlus, 2004-5)
I am hard pressed to find a video game franchise that so consistently produces mixed feelings in me as MegaTen, right down to Persona 5 being 50% brilliant and 50% lame. But in one instance everything magically came together to produce the Digital Devil Saga duology. The two games boil the JRPG genre down to its bare essentials: dungeon crawling and turn-based combat, and does so with incredible focus and aplomb. But it also subverts that very formula, not in a typically self-conscious, winking way, but by the subtle way in which the gameplay mechanics and story are integrated. While also exemplifying how to expertly tell a compelling story in the medium without just slapping on lengthy, hour-long cutscenes. While also being a heady mixture of cyberpunk sci-fi, horror and metaphysics. While also having one of the best soundtracks ever, and one of the coolest visual styles ever.
It’s still a flawed duology, with a difficulty curve that can easily become a grindfest, and the games are a little too willing to throw nasty curveballs at you. But I also can’t think of any other JRPG experience quite like it.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo, 2000)
Of all the things that have tried to copy Twin Peaks, the property that has always felt closest to the spirit of the show was….The Legend of Zelda, at least during this phase of its history. The X-Files, etc may have done a better surface-level impression, but the developers at Nintendo were more in tune with its mingling of the mundane and the uncanny and its weird tonal oscillations between whimsy, horror, irony and the heartfelt. Majora’s Mask in particular actually does for video games roughly what Twin Peaks did for TV: taking the medium’s familiar tropes and turning them into a sort of surrealist vaudeville.
It’s also, as others have remarked, a game about despair, where the enemy isn’t so much an evil lord as it is the feeling of futility in the face of an indifferent world careening towards its own oblivion.
But, even more importantly, it is a game about how this sort of despair is defeated.
3. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (Square-Enix, 2006, 2017)
The trouble is that all the Final Fantasies that I love are tied for first place in my heart, so I have to settle for defaults when picking one or two. In this case, The Zodiac Age is that rare FF remake that addresses the original’s flaws without introducing new ones in the process. So that kicks XII above all those FF s that exist in some flawed, undefinitive form. The amount of hours that I’ve pumped into it probably counts for something as well.
4. Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994)
It was the first kinda complex game I’ve ever played, and I’ve been playing it ever since it was new. Beyond that, I don’t think it requires any introduction.
5. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (WayForward, 2016)
Half-Genie hero isn’t the best platformer I’ve played, but it may be the one that’s most right for me, with a silly aesthetic that exists somewhere between a Saturday morning cartoon and a magical girl anime, and gameplay that exists somewhere between Mega Man X and a Metroidvania. The thing is just so dang happy that it’s infectious.
6.NieR: Automata (PlatinumGames, 2017)
I’m not sure where this one should go; it’s by far the most surprising game of this generation, the weird artsy passion project that’ll likely be remembered alongside the likes of Shadow of the Colossus. It’s the sort of game where every time I thought I had it figured out, it would swerve into something completely unexpected. But it’s so dang harrowing and dark that I wonder if it’ll see many replays. So somewhere in the middle seems appropriate for now.
7.Final Fantasy VII (Squaresoft, 1997)
Again, another default. VII wasn’t my first FF (that was IV), but it was the first that really got its teeth into me, turning me into a JRPG fan. You know the drill.
8.Mega Man X (Capcom, 1993)
And another entry I always have to tip my hat towards. It started a lifelong habit of Mega-manning and precision platforming. I do like Sonic and Mario, but this game is probably the reason I find their momentum-based controls a bit too unwieldy. Also, as a kid Zero was just the coolest.
9.Shovel Knight (Yacht Club Games, 2014)
Although already a few years old, I didn’t get around to playing it until quite recently. This one may actually be the best platformer I’ve ever played, distilling the essence of the genre’s 8-bit days while applying contemporary insights. It’s like the good old days, but with none of the controller-snapping frustration.
10.The Last Guardian (Sony, 2016)
You can criticize this game as a glorified pet simulator, and as an indication that video game auteur Fumito Ueda has a very limited aesthetic toolbox (it’s another game where you and an AI partner work together to escape some mysterious, ancient ruins via some puzzle platforming!), but it really tugged at my heartstrings. It’s a janky, simplistic mess, but it’s a very heartfelt and touching one.
On that note, there’s another aspect of this list that I’ve noticed, if you’ll allow me to put on my pretentious artiste beret for a moment: all the entries less than two years old (if we don’t count The Zodiac Age), were made by people who very much wanted to make those games, as opposed to people only looking for a paycheque. I get that video games are as much a business as anything else, but I find it’s increasingly easy to spot the difference. I still find a lot of the big AAA games to be well crafted and technically impressive, but they often don’t feel like they have much ambition beyond producing enough of a sensory high to not feel regret over the purchase. These games are often fun, but increasingly homogeneous, since it’s increasingly the case that the design principles that hit that psychological sweet spot of “ooh, fun” in the widest possible range of people are increasingly converging. So it’s fun and spectacular, but often evanescent.
Contrast that with Half-Genie Hero, a piece of extremely silly fluff which no one would mistake for some sort of auteur indie artistic masterpiece, but nevertheless made by people who were passionate about their product and about making good entertainment. That excitement carries over and makes it fondly remembered and easily revisited, even if the actual gameplay is a tad rough around the edges compared to Call of Duty 37: Santa Claus Parade Security Ops or whatever.
So I guess what I’m saying in a roundabout way is that the games I like are cool and indicative of good taste while the ones you like are probably lame.