Outside of the genuine medical emergencies in the lives of myself and my family, writing a top favorite games list is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. How do you pick the games that define an entire life of gaming? Sweet Jeebus, that’s tough.
Ultimately, I wrote down every game that came to mind, then narrowed it down to those that affected me in ways that would define my personal relationship with gaming going forward. And then I rounded it out with an honorable mention section -- games that I loved, that are staples of their genre or masterpieces that transcend time, but that didn’t noticeably change my attitude toward gaming or my future preferences.
Honestly, I hate these lists. This is insanely tough, and I can’t believe I’m doing this, but here goes.
The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1986)
The original open-world RPG, the Legend of Zelda on NES is a classic that should be compared to its equals in literature, like the Great Gatsby and the Sound and the Fury. I’ll never forget the first time I took that sword because it was dangerous to go alone. Even more than just an 8-bit rendition of acid trip monsters and the flying sword beams that slay them, Zelda opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the video game industry going forward. It represents the humble beginnings of everything I hold dear in the medium.
Star Ocean: the Second Story (PS1, 1999)
My absolute favorite RPG of all time, the depth and complexities of Star Ocean: the Second Story for the original Playstation were, quite honestly, way ahead of its time. There were so many skills, professions, and crafting combinations that it’s truly mind-blowing to think about. It was impossible to master them all, but I tried all the same. In the end, I think the only major skill I never got a decent handle on was cooking. The story choices were much more complicated than those in other RPGs at that time, and the number of playable characters and endings was enough to seal in the replay value alone. Not to mention, there were two main characters to choose from, and the story changed based on who you decided to go with. I can’t think of another game that I look back on as fondly as I do this one.
Kerbal Space Program (PC, 2015)
A simulator among simulators, KSP is one of those games that blows your mind, plain and simple. It makes you realize, whether you like it or not (and there were certainly a few gamers in the not category) the extent of what can be accomplished through gaming. Because KSP is so educational that you receive a crash course in astrophysics and rocket science just to do anything outside of the start menu. And it’s better if you come into it with advanced degrees in those subjects in the first place. It takes forever to figure out how to do anything, and each new small step is an enormous chore. But along the way, you genuinely learn how to send a mission into the atmosphere, into orbit, to the Mun, and eventually throughout the solar system. It’s an insanely innovative game, and it provides an incredible feeling of accomplishment at every turn. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the urge to jump up from my seat and cheer just like the NASA engineers in Houston. The educational value of video games has taken leaps and bounds forward with KSP’s release and continual development. So much so that partnerships with NASA, SpaceX, and TeacherGaming LLC have shown the world just how much video games have to offer society and the future of pedagogy.
Rome: Total War (PC, 2004)
Rome: Total War is the second game in the Total War series, and the first I’d ever played. Not only did it ignite a long, passionate pursuit of PC gaming, but it also inspired a degree in history and an academic career trajectory. So, ya know, it had a bit of an impact on my life. It was eye-opening to find a game so well researched, so involved, and so fun to play. Since Rome, I’ve gone on to play many more strategy games, from simple to complex (read: Crusader Kings 2), and though some of them are incredible in scope and leave lasting impressions, none of them will ever again mimic the inspiration that Rome has instilled.
Timesplitters (PS2, 2000)
I never played Goldeneye, but Timesplitters was not my first serious entry into first person shooters. I’d played earlier hits like Quake and Duke Nukem. Duke Nukem is in the honorable mention because I was way too young for it, and I still remember the day my dad brought home the game. It changed the way I looked at gaming. But not as much as Timesplitters did, because this is a game that went on to perfect a genre, molding it into what it would one day become. It was fast-paced, with multiple characters, weapons, and modes. And then there were more modes. There were modes like virus, which was wildly popular and the inspiration for the Halo zombie mode. There was a fish in a fishbowl with a robot body, a mapmaker, and more self-deprecating humor than one could ask for. Not only was it a solid game, it was also wildly creative, and just plain fun at every level.
Bushido Blade (PS1, 1997)
Bushido Blade is the most unique fighting game of all time. And it spoiled me, which is probably why I don’t play many fighting games now. Before it were giants like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II, but after it came a series of lackluster titles that never saw me bat an eye. Bushido Blade was defined by its ultra realistic combat mechanics and lack of life bars. Hits to the limbs would disable arms and legs, until you or your opponent could only hobble or even crawl. And one-hit kills were not only possible, but regular occurrences. The environments offered their own challenges and interactive elements. Mastering the several unique weapons was amazingly fun, and playing through the changing story as the various characters made replayability necessary to get the full picture. Overall, it isn’t likely we’ll see another fighting game quite like Bushido Blade, unless it’s a remake of Bushido Blade.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, 1990)
You can take the boy out of the platformer, but you can’t take the platformer out of the boy. No, that doesn’t make sense. Unless platformer is the name of that sweet tanuki suit you get to wear every so often in Super Mario Bros. 3. I’m not sure I can offer any unique insight into a game that defined gaming for an entire generation. The Super Mario series is not only the most well-known in video game history, but it’s arguably also among the most challenging and entertaining. Even years later, when all the secrets and tricks are well-known, nothing quite beats getting together with your friends to pass the controller around and see how far you can get.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PC, 2015)
It’s possible that the Witcher 3 is on this list because it’s the most recent game that I’ve completely fallen for, and to which I would birth many robust and healthy sons would it be physically possible and socially acceptable. It’s also possible that it’s because the Witcher 3 is the epitome of open-world gaming and a shining example of storytelling. The combat is far better than the Elder Scrolls, though magic and character customization is more limited. The Witcher universe makes up for that, with Geralt’s extensive backstory and adventure told through the book series that the games are based on. The lore and mythos of the strange yet familiar world and its monstrous inhabitants pulls you in and refuses to let you go.
Resident Evil 2 (PS1, 1998)
Hours and hours on end were spent in my basement playing Resident Evil 2 with the lights off. I honestly don’t know how I came out of it with all my wits about me. I probably didn’t, seeing as it’s on the list of games that have had the most impact on me over the years. Playing as one of two characters, Resident Evil 2 expanded upon the story told by the first game, as the zombie virus escapes the mansion out into Raccoon City. This was the first game I’d played where the frights were genuinely frightening. Even the very atmosphere kept you on edge. The story was solid in the old days, before the endless complications of running a series into the ground had taken hold. The mechanics were unique and functioned spectacularly, even in the midst of the endless crises faced throughout. Later, after getting good enough, it was time to fend off Mr. X and start doing speed runs. For as short a game as it ended up being in terms of hours, the puzzles and terror kept a beginning player going for the long haul. After all was said and done, it was still fun to play again and again.
The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind (Xbox, 2002)
It’s quite possible that Morrowind is the one game that’s had the biggest impact on me out of any game I’ve ever played. The massive world, the freedom of movement and discovery, the unprecedented character customization -- it was all so new and so breathtaking. Here was a game that let you be anything you wanted and encouraged you to do so, offering practically no direction at all. I remember hunting for the assassins guild for days and days in hopes of joining their ranks, and doing all the fetch quests for the mage’s guild that I could. Morrowind was pure triumph, and since its release open-world games have only benefitted from its resounding success.
Crusader Kings II (PC, 2012)
Golden Axe (Arcade, 1989)
Street Fighter II (Arcade, 1991)
Way of the Samurai (PS2, 2002)
Independence Day (Sega Saturn, 1997)
Spiderman and Venom: Maximum Carnage (SNES, 1994)
Maniac Mansion (NES, 1987)
Super Mario RPG (SNES, 1996)
Final Fantasy VII (PS1, 1997)
Chrono Cross (PS1, 2000)
Metal Gear Solid (PS1, 1998)
Castlevania (Arcade, 1986)
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox, 2003)
Fallout 3 (Xbox 360, 2008)
Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox, 2001)