Top games of the last generation?
My top ten are as follows:
Less a game than a psychedelic experience, Rez sits comfortably in the number 10 spot for its unique shooting mechanics and "far-out" graphics that would serve as the perfect visualization to anyone's most cherished of IDM tracks. Don't let the minimalist design you see in screenshots fool you - there is a hell of a lot going on here, visually. In fact, sometimes you'll feel so overwhelmed by the sights that it's easy to lose track of what's going on. Not that Rez gets confusing (while sober). Rather, these images are great at simulating the effects that a fun acid trip or a meditative state has on the mind's eye. More specifically, the game's imagery and music exemplify a more modern form of psychedelia that speaks to those living in this current age of technology and information.
For anyone wondering how it actually plays, here are the cliffnotes: You guide an avatar's shooting reticle across the screen in an attempt to blast away targets while maintaining a sense of rhythm in doing so. In other words, every time you press the "shoot" button, you create percussion; if you're talented, you can actually add complexity to the game's music (such as breakbeats). The player is not punished for having bad rhythm, though
The soundtrack itself melds together perfectly with the visuals and shooting gameplay. What kind of tuneage could possibly enhance these trippy images, you wonder? Let's just say that fans of modern dance and rave will be pleased. The joy in Rez comes from watching your talent for shooting targets while keeping rhythm to pulsating electronic beats take shape on the screen. But let's suppose you're not a fan of trance or house. Will you still get your $60 worth (this is the usual price for a new copy of the PS2 version on Amazon right now)? Speaking as someone who usually hates that kind of music, I must warn you that this game could be a catalyst to hitting up your local indie record store for that rare Infected Mushroom B-side. The soundtrack is that good and, for many people, has the tendency to flip negative perceptions of rave music.
The impact Rez had on me was equal to more than the sum of its parts. There are some truly awesome sequences that could only be accomplished using the medium of videogames. In whole, this title is a one-of -a-kind cerebral journey sporting some of the most groovy and even thrilling moments of last gen gaming.
9. Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath
Rez's concept is so fresh, so unique, that you feel the need to stare in awe at the ingeniousness of it. Lorne Lanning, on the other hand, will have you laughing your ass off at his innovations. What he did was create a shooter without guns, lasers, or firepower of any kind. The live ammo you fire in Stranger's Wrath is just that - alive. Whether it's launching miniature fuzzballs with sharp teeth at a redneck chicken and watching them chew its feathers off, or using a carefully placed skunk mine that induces the spontaneous vomiting of all enemies nearby, there are countless entertaining scenarios in Stranger's Wrath that involve kicking ass without the use of gunpowder.
The hero of the story is an animalistic badass who can run as fast as a gazelle and speaks like Barry White imitating the man with no name (the latter of whom he kinda resembles). He works as a wild west-style bounty hunter who tracks down and captures any target (dead or alive, of course) for a price. Did I mention that you can flawlessly switch between first and third person? The number of games that pull it off successfully can be counted on one hand. SW is one of 'em.
Not only is the idea of using "live" ammo in a western shooter refreshing, but Lanning's fantasy art style gives us a much needed new take on the genre. If the Coen brothers brainstormed with Tim Schaffer and his "think of a cool world and make the protagonist the most awesome character in that world" philosophy, then you might see Stranger's Wrath as the end creative product. The story is rich with genuine humor, surprising twists, and memorable characters. Aside from a few games that have yet to be mentioned on this list, you won't find a more creative title in Xbox/Ps2/Gamecube generation.
8. Resident Evil 4
It was clear, way back in the early 2000's, that Capcom's flagship horror series was overdue for some good ol' progression. More than any other installment, Resident Evil Zero drove the point home - much like a bullet through a crusty zombie noggin - that the franchise simply wasn't adapting to the times. Some might say it was never with the times from the start. The inaccessible tank-like controls, the diminishing quality of the story, and the overall lack of creativity (you fought a giant bat in RE:0. Really.) caused many fans to jump ship to other, much scarier, survival horror games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame. Then, in 2005, something happened that would alter the entire genre on a level nobody expected. With the release of RE4 came the death of survival horror as we knew it.
In this sequel, Capcom appropriated many innovative features from hit stealth games (such as the over-the-shoulder camera from Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid's laser-sight aiming) and wrapped an old-fashioned creature-feature concept around them. What we ended up with was a fresh take on the survival horror genre that held on to some of the main staples of the franchise (gore, hordes of brainless enemies, surprise scares) but was oddly as much fun as playing a Legend of Zelda title. How could anyone go back?
No, RE4 was not perfect. The gameplay was updated, but the story remained as corny as ever. I would also argue that Capcom focused so much on making the game fun that they kinda forgot to make an actual horror game. Resident Evil (until now) is supposed to scare people, right? The freakiest thing I encountered was a script that could pass as a new Tommy Wiseau feature. Minor flaws aside, RE4 had the most innovative gameplay of its genre, some of the best graphics of its time and many of the most memorable action set-pieces of its generation. This is still the most "playable" survival horror title on the market.
7. Silent Hill 2
If Resident Evil succeeded in making a horror game that you wanted to play, Silent Hill 2 was a masterpiece in how it forced gamers to prematurely shut their PS2's off and think about something else. The series simply affected its audience in a way that few other games (and even films) could - it scared them the fuck away. Konami, I imagine, were pleased to hear that their project was a success. Sure, horror games can be entertaining romps in which you and a buddy laugh at the endless sea of exploding heads surrounding your badass avatar's shotgun - but isn't it more of an accomplishment when one comes along and actually forces you to sleep with the lamp on out of fear that being enveloped in darkness could amplify an odd noise? Some of the sights in SH2 (Pyramid Head..ahem) lingered in the minds of gamers long after the blue light on their PS2 turned red.
And then there was the soundtrack...my GOD. When composer Akira Yamaoka wasn't scaring me pantless with his disturbing ambient/industrial drones, I was swaying my head like a goon to the progressive guitar pop that blared before and after the main story mode. I urge fans of atmospheric music to buy the SH2 OST. You won't be disappointed ( I get paid every time I say that).
Finally, the story is also fantastic, though it borrows liberally from films like Blue Velvet and Jacob's Ladder. In other words, if you are expecting a schlocky B-movie experience (like what you find with another horror game on this list), prepare to be pleasantly surprised by the artful consideration that went in to crafting SH2's psychological narrative; it is rife with humanist themes, heavy symbolism, and one of the more shocking plot twists in gaming. On the other hand, as good as it is, don't go expecting anything on the level of David Lynch.
SH2 is on this list because it's simply better at being a horror game than any of the competition. Plus there's the added bonus of some of the best graphics, music and story of its time (and I would still say the OST is one of the greatest of any game ever made). While the gameplay won't impress anyone, it serves its purpose and then some. A must own title from last gen.
6. Ninja Gaiden: Black
Sometimes you play a game for pure fun. On other occasions (like in this current console/PC generation) you do it to feel engrossed in atmospheric sights and sounds. Then there are games that are beaten almost solely to overcome the intense challenge they offer. Ninja Gaiden is great because you will be completely satisfied should you want to play it for all three of these reasons. Admittedly, many challenging games cause a strange mental illness to manifest within me. The side effects are: violent outbursts, lack of empathy towards all material objects in the room, and short-term memory loss. The amazing thing about Gaiden, about its design, is that when I died for the 18th time on Alma, I didn't groan or throw the controller after every beatdown endured. Instead, the first thought that popped into my mind was, "how can I make that last fight look even cooler?" Therein lies its brilliance - the combat system is so deep and fluid that there's actually an element of choreography to it.
I won't lie - Ninja Gaiden is still tough. A true gamer's game. On the other hand, it's also designed in such a way that the endless joy you get from improving your technique overshadows the frustratingly steep difficulty curve. If you memorize a decent portion of the move list and execute certain attacks in the proper order (with the correct timing) , what results is an action scene easily matching anything from Yuen Woo-ping's filmography. I'm trying to avoid hyperbole here, believe it or not. This "kung fu simulation" style is something that you simply don't get from Devil May Cry's fast-paced yet restrictive brawl system, or the button-mashing mess that is God of War. Team Ninja show off a strong knowledge of kinetics that makes Gaiden the most enjoyable pure (3D) action game ever released. Clunky camera be damned.
The quality doesn't stop there, though. Makoto Hosoi-san and co's soundtrack is incredibly well done and the graphics are also among the best of the generation. Overall, this is a challenging game that remains consistently enjoyable for anyone with a bit of patience who loves action. Quite an accomplishment.
When the majority of gamers think of a memorable plot in their medium of choice, they often name-drop Square Enix or Hideo Kojima. My question is this: What are you left with when the shiny production values, superfluous side stories, and 20-minute cutscenes are gone? In most cases you have a great game with a piss-poor story. This sad truth applies to most of the stories told in the medium. On the other hand, a director named Fumito Ueda made a short game with little more than three characters, a castle, and roughly three or four quick cutscenes. Ico, as it is called, turned out to be one of the sacred cows of the industry and beloved by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead.
How does something like this happen? Long story short, it's all about simplicity! Any critically successful filmmaker or professor in film will tell you that sometimes a modest narrative is the best route to effective storytelling. It is important to keep in mind, however, that using this method is no less ambitious that the Kojima style of writing several characters with a short book's worth of dialogue each. If you're talented enough, hell, you can make a great movie with just two dudes and an endless desert (Something Gus Van Sant took to heart when he directed Gerry). The fact that Ueda, with this title, has spawned a very loyal fanbase and has received high critical acclaim using the less-is-more strategy is proof that you don't really need to follow the Kojima model in order to create a successful example of videogame storycraft. Ico conveys an atmospheric tale of love, alienation and challenging age-old traditions through the language of gameplay and (beautiful) imagery. Dialogue is kept at a minimum, and what's there is not in any existing dialect. There are also no hardcore fight scenes that insult the attention span of the audience, with exception of one that makes sense within the context of the story.
That's not to say that combat isn't a necessary evil in some videogames; a gamestop with no action titles on the shelf is not going to make any sort of profit and, let's face it, a good action game can be quite addicting. However, in this industry of exploding heads and giant crabs, it's highly refreshing to see a director smart enough to create a labor of love that shows restraint.
4. Jet Set Radio Future
A few times in every console/PC generation we, the gamers, receive a surprise gift. Like Ico, a true labor of love is released which offers an experience apart from what you normally get in gaming. At the time, Jet Grind Radio for the dreamcast was the only cell-shaded/rollerblade/graffiti-spraying game in existence. To this day, only one other can make that claim - its sequel, the more refined Jet Set Radio Future. Both are fantastic, but the latter is the superior product in my eyes; It's faster, more streamlined, contains more polish, and that pesky time limit is kaput. Both games were critical smashes all across the board, yet the exceptional music in these titles still divides the series' fanbase. I would estimate that roughly half prefer the original's and the other half prefer Future's. This polarization is a good thing, though, because when averaged out, you are left with the realization that both soundtracks are about equal in quality.
As implied before, these games have some truly wonderful music. However, since I prefer the sequel as a whole, I won't continue mentioning the dreamcast installment. What you get in JSRF is the catchiest J-pop, dance, electronica, and hip-hop around that even the nerdiest japanophiles to the hippest of hipsters will want to store on their 64-gig ipods. Such a soundtrack would have to reflect the quirky style of the graphics and characters while remaining both eclectic and cohesive at the same time. It does this better than most could imagine. Of course, the gameplay is no slouch either. The overall concept is simple: skate around a huge cell-shaded urban environment, spray graffiti, and fend off "the man"(who are of course portrayed in the story as corrupt cops and megalomaniacs). After these ground rules are set, though, the possibilities are endless. Some of the moves at your disposal include grinding rails (which you will be doing most of the time), wall-riding, skating backwards, and performing various tricks on half-pipes. The greatest players can traverse an entire city without touching the ground. This "easy-to-learn, hard-to-master" aspect of JSRF's gameplay makes it enjoyable by gamers of all ages and skill levels.
Finally, I have to talk about the graphics - they are beautiful and hold up well today. The cell-shaded style is one of a kind and, in some cases, looks even prettier than The Wind Waker's. The end result is something akin to moving, breathing graffiti on your TV screen. Fitting. Overall, smilebit have created one of the most unique and enjoyable games of its generation. Few titles will be as consistently entertaining or put me in as good of a mood.
Not many games could have outdone the JSR series in terms of being a "feel-good experience", but Psychonauts easily rises to the challenge. It does this not through an amazing soundtrack or a truly unique gameplay experience (not to say the music sucks or the concept isn't one of the most original conceived); Make no mistake, the whole package is there - gameplay, sound, graphics, etc. Where Psychonauts really shines through is in its writing; Few, if any, games manage to evoke as much genuine laughter or impress with the imagination displayed in Tim Schaffer's sole xbox outing. The story is hilarious on the surface, but don't be fooled: This was Inception before Inception even existed. In Psychonauts you play as Raz, a young "psycho cadet" at a Psychic camp who is granted the ability to explore the minds of those around him. These mental excursions usually result in strange, surreal imagery that falls somewhere between a Tim Burton animation concept and the style of mid-nineties Nicktoon. You will dust for "mental cobwebs", find tags that go to "emotional baggage" and by the end of these "levels", you will have even drastically altered the host's psychology (the last part sounds like inception, right?). There are flabbergasts o'plenty in this game. In a hidden area of one host's mind, and a high-spirited host at that, you may come across the screaming ghosts of her dead children. Scared the shit out of me when I first saw it. Sorry if I ruined this scene for anyone else, but I feel like giving a fair warning to those who are considering playing alone at 3:00 am with the lights out.
Aside from a couple pant-moistening surprises, though, I really enjoyed the mental landscapes. One, which I will mention vaguely to avoid spoilers, involves a lovesick spanish artist, a torero, and a city made of black velvet. Who else but Tim Schaffer could hatch such a concept? This is a well-told story and is a major focus of Psychonauts, yet does not get in the way of the game itself - which is delightful but has some minor problems. The platforming mechanics are serviceable, for instance, but quite derivative of other games in the gernre. There are also some glitches and minor camera issues that people like to bitch about. I tend to feel that these are just small blemishes on the face of a Dallas Cowboy's Cheerleader and are not worth making a fuss over.
Minor peeves aside, there is much fun to be had. Once you build a sizable roster of psychic powers, you won't be able to contain the desire to use them on NPCs for shits and giggles. The developers foresaw this and were thoughtful enough to include several pages of additional dialogue to reward gamers with an appreciation of dark humor. Also, be prepared to bounce on the levitation ball for hours at a time for no particular reason.
Long story short, I love the P-nauts because it's what the industry needs more of: Fresh concepts that make the idea of being immersed in a game's world more rewarding. Additionally, the industry needs more games that make us laugh - and I'm not talking about fart jokes (I'm looking at you, Conker). When it comes to clean, inventive humor and highly creative videogame concepts, very few last gen titles (and this gen too) can measure up to Schaffer's psychic odyssey.
2. Half-Life 2
Taken from IMDB, "It was speculated that the reason for the game being delayed from September 2003 to November 2004 was because the source code and a large portion of the completed game was stolen. This is not true. The delay was actually because the game would not be finished in September 2003, and the leak was just a bad coincidence."
This tidbit won't surprise hardcore Valve fans for many reasons. Most of all, it highlights the fact that scheduled release dates can be counterproductive. Here is a game with 12 hours of consistent innovation, and a good portion of it would never have been possible if the developer (valve) were forced to turn in the rough draft.
The first third of Half-Life 2 introduces you to one of the most detailed visions of a bleak dystopian future in the games industry. The world has been overtaken by beings of unknown origin who have asserted authoritative control over major cities and seek to wipe out humanity by suppressing its ability and desire to reproduce. Film (and book) buffs will instantly find parallels between the game and Children of Men, yet how many other developers have put this kind of thought into a sci-fi scenario? The story, while not completely original, is tasteful and manages to exceed expectations.
The goal in the first section of the main campaign, however, is to introduce you to a one-of-a-kind, fully-functioning physics system. Everything in the HL2 world behaves very much as it should in real-life, and almost anything you see can be thrown, dropped, blown-up, or - as you will later discover- launched. The developers at Valve could have stopped there and given us a very nice interactive shooter. However, the little troopers kept going until the greatest videogame weapon of all time was conceived and perfected: the zero-point energy field manipulator! For the sake of my own patience I will refer to it by the commonly accepted nick name (the gravity gun). The reason why this baby trumps all other weapons, including gravity guns in other shooters, is because the laws of physics are virtually the only restrictions against its use. Anything that isn't a wall or an object bigger than a truck can be moved or even shot at enemies.
Once again, valve could have stopped there and ended up with one of the better shooters of all time. However, they decided to continue with a series of fascinating scenarios that prevent the gun from becoming a novelty. These events are woven together with a thread of very considered pacing. The first few hours are spent running from helicopters. Next, you're in a zombie-infested ghost town. After that, you are reenacting the film "Tremors" by jumping from rock to rock in an attempt to avoid sending vibrations through the sand that will call giant, ground-dwelling insects to dinner (hint: you're the main course, mothafucka). All of these ideas could've had separate games built around them that any lesser developer would've sold in several parts. Instead, they all complement each other and form one giant game brimming with more ideas that are delivered with better execution than most titles on the market. The idea of issuing a release via several chapters was eventually adopted by valve, but, thankfully, did not seem to occur to them until a good while after HL2. Or maybe they just realized early on that it wasn't the best way to sell the first sequel of a potential hit franchise. Either way, as a 3D action title, nothing can match Valve's masterpiece. It is the most important gamer's game of its generation.
1. Shadow of the Colossus
Half-Life 2 is unbeatable as a pure videogame, but does it amount to something more? When viewed as an artistic achievement, it owes far too much to sci-fi books and films of yore to exist as a work that is relevant to culture. Are there any games that might be considered important to humanity? Probably not, but Shadow of the Colossus comes close. If Rez is the videogame equivalent of a groovy IDM track, then SOTC is the industry's first "post-rock" game. No electric guitars or drums exist in the soundtrack, but the its essence and structure mirrors that of an Explosions in the Sky composition; ethereal serenity is punctuated by shocking intensity. I believe it will go down as Famito Ueda's masterpiece.
Those who are already sick of hearing me praise this game to no end might as well close the browser, because I'm just getting warmed up.
We gamers tend to throw around the word "epic" when describing memorable videogame sequences. I'm as bad as anybody. Of course, it isn't being used in the poetic sense as much as one having to do with modern literature and film. Lawrence of Arabia is epic. Lord of the Rings (both book and film) is Epic. Shackelton's "War and Peace" is epic. Nowadays, netting 40 kills in Call of Duty is epic. Making Kratos decapitate a 12-ton Cyclops without obtaining a scratch is incredibly epic. Riding across the toy-like plains of Hyrule is epic to some. Many games are crowned with this term due to merely showing action with intense drama and scope. SOTC does this and a hell of a lot more. Can a game also be epic from a thematic standpoint? The initial tagline for Shadow of the Colossus was off to a good start: "how far would you go for the one you love?" or something like that. The second, more recognized promotional tag indirectly answers this question: "Some mountains are scaled. Others are slain."
In case you haven't guessed by now, the protagonist of this game is told he must murder several crag-sized creatures in order to be with his dead lover again. THAT is epic to me. This is not a man. Nor is it a God. He is not a "chosen one" of some sort. The nameless lead in SOTC is around 17-years-old. He is a gifted archer, but swings his sword awkwardly; he would likely fail miserably in a real sword fight. He trips when running up steep inclines. He is not a superman character by any means, yet his skill and determination make you believe that he is perhaps capable of completing the task. Most importantly, his traits are defined by the gamer's traits. Throughout the events that unfold, "Wander's" emotions (wander is a name born from a media mistranslation that fans have adopted) are, for the most part, designed to reflect those of the gamer. When the giants finally do appear, your first reaction is a thought more or less amounting to "HOLY FUCKING FUCK" (maybe that was just me). You begin to doubt yourself and construct a game plan in your head. You wonder if taking down one of these behemoths is even possible. One can imagine that similar thoughts are intended to run through the protagonist's mind as well. It is a testament to the brilliance of the game's storytelling and design that this is successfully conveyed through mostly animation and facial expressions alone. In contrast, when Kratos confronts a giant colossus and bellows an angry threat, you already know how the battle is going to end. The barbaric Spartan has killed a God and possesses many God-like powers. Who can stop him? After besting the fifth or sixth giant, you may think the same gift of invincibility has been bestowed upon SOTC's nameless "hero". Then you notice his deteriorating physical condition that only worsens throughout the course of the game.
I could continue waxing intellectual about the subtle nuances that make SOTC the best example of an epic experience in videogames, as well as proof that games can be something more than loud, mindless entertainment. Let me just get to the point: Ueda, much like he did with Ico, conveys the human spirit better than most developers by using far less than what they generally feel is required to emotionally resonate with the player. He does not pander, and any melodrama that exists is completely intended.
Additionally, as a genuine videogame "epic", it not only meets criteria with its visual sense of scope and scale (I can't think of any recent games that are so effective at making you feel insignificant and alone in a strange and enormous world) , but thematically and emotionally you feel the weight of your actions more than in any game that comes to mind. Earlier I may have struck you as confrontational by using the word "murder" instead of "defeat" in regards to killing the Colossi (or maybe everyone just thought I was speaking on behalf of PETA). This, as it turns out, is the most appropriate word I could have used. Well, perhaps "poach" would have sufficed, but I digress. Climbing and defeating the colossi is a thrill, yet when they spurt that black blood and fall to the ground you wonder if any of these giants actually DESERVE to die. At the end of the day, there are no good or evil characters in this story. Nor are there any clear heroes or villains (though if there was a clear hero, it would be the horse). Almost every character in SOTC has both ethical actions, and corrupt ones, and the main moral question posed by this game is a doozy: "if it meant wiping away an entire form of life from your world, would you do so in order to be with a deceased loved one again?" The answer is not made clear by the director, although I believe his may be more cynical than those of the audience this title is exposed to.
To get to the point (again...*sigh*), as a reaction to the needless slaughter that players of most action/adventure games welcome with open arms, Ueda, I think, wishes to instill a sense of dread and guilt into the player after every kill. One that completely matches the exhilaration of overcoming an enormous obstacle standing between the boy and his loved one. By the 16th colossus, you may feel as though you have indeed committed virtual genocide. Even if you feel nothing but pure joy when slaughtering the giants, surely a certain heartbreaking scene involving the protagonist's loyal horse will extract some feelings of regret towards realizing your grim mission. On the other hand, could the cause for all this bloodshed be at all be worthy? After all, you are re-connecting a young soul with his dead love. You are returning a human life in exchange for many that may or may not even BE alive. It should be mentioned at this point that it is not explained whether these giant beings of stone and fur are truly living things, or animated golems. I don't think even Ueda knows the answer, although I'm certain that he still takes a moral stance on what occurs. My personal interpretation is similar to my thoughts on the relatively unknown story of Romeo and Juliet (bad joke, sorry): love between youth, like life, is often quick and fleeting. Maybe this nameless romantic should just man-up and accept his loss so fellow villagers can introduce him to another ethereal skirt around the town campfire. Makes a little more sense to me than wiping out a potentially endangered species of life for the sake of boning a zombie.
Real quick, you may be wondering, "why hasn't this pretentious shitbird mentioned anything about the gameplay?" Okay, to be fair, there isn't a whole lot more to SOTC than killing 16 "bosses" and some self-paced sightseeing. You kinda have to get past that to enjoy it for what it is. However, I wonder if adding several NPCs and side-quests would have really improved the overall experience? If you think so, let me know how it could work, because I'm drawing a blank.
In the end, Shadow of the Colossus is the greatest videogame achievement of the last generation because it amounts to something more than just a great videogame. No, I don't hail it as an example of fine art. However, Ueda's ability to evoke complex emotions through a simple, yet engrossing, story told (mostly) in gameplay and visuals alone (all on an epic scale) makes it a considerable work that should be studied by gamers and game developers for generations to come.
I know, I know - I care way too much.
NOTE: By posting this monster, I'm not implying that anyone needs to critique my writing. Apparently that is a luxury that only paid members can have. I guess there's no problem with discussing why my list sucks or kicks ass, though. And I'm curious to see everyone else's top ten.