I just turned thirty.
And I realized that today’s eighteen year-olds—legal adults who can enlist in the armed forces and die for their country, serve hard time, etc.—were born in 1997. 1997! In 1997, I was playing, or shortly would be playing, many of the games on this list! You youngsters with your Call of Duties and Assassin’s Creed clones and your endless DLC will never know The Struggle of going to Blockbuster to rent a game or having to “befriend” your neighborhood’s version of Pigpen so you could play his new computer game on Windows 98 while staying up all night drinking Mountain Dew and eating cheese doodles.
Fact is, a lot of genre-defining, industry-saving games had hit cult classic status before a good chunk of modern gamers were old enough to appreciate them…or…y’know…exist. If that’s you, read on and see what you (hopefully haven’t been) missing. And if you’re a geezer like me, join me for a spell on the nostalgia train.
Not all the games listed here are from the 90s or early 2000s, but a lot of them are. These games are definitive in some way. These aren’t necessarily your “desert island” games. I wouldn’t want some of these games stuck with me forever. These are genre and system-defining games. These games saved SEGA, revolutionized the FPS genre, ushered in Console Wars, and changed the way everything after them was done.
Why should everyone play them? Because how you understand contemporary games is defined by these games. These games set the bar. Read on. You’ll see.
Thus begins, in no particular order, our series on THIRTY YEARS OF GAMING: A SERIES ON OUR BEST GAMES.
SUPER MARIO WORLD by NINTENDO (SNES)
First Released: November 21, 1990.
What is Bowser’s problem? Leave Peach alone, you firebreathing reptilian scoundrel. You have seven children. Do you reproduce asexually? No? Then where did these kids come from? There’s obviously a Mrs. Bowser. How does she feel about your unhealthy obsession with the princess of Mushroom Kingdom, you weirdo?
The Plot: Bowser’s at it again! He somehow gets his claws on Peach, probably because her bodyguards are a bunch of pre-pubescent mushroom people.
Thus Mario and Luigi are hot on the trail to Yoshi’s Island, the Donut Plains, the Vanilla Dome, the Twin Bridges, the Forest of Illusion, Chocolate Island, and the Valley of Bowser to confront King Koopa and save Princess Toadstool…yet again. But gosh it’s fun.
The Good: The Mario games aren’t really known for their narrative significance (though Game Theory’s MatPat has done a fine job making it all coherent) but if that’s what you think this is about, you’re really missing the point. Super Mario World is all about crisp controls, hand-eye coordination, great graphics, an unforgettable soundtrack, and most of all: adventure!
The Bad and Ugly: This is the perfect 2D platformer. It has a save feature—not entirely common at the time—crisp controls, great graphics and music, and a variety of worlds and enemies. It launched with the SNES and set the bar for everything after. There is no bad and ugly, folks.
Why Everyone Should Play It: Because it is the perfect 2D platformer and a definitive SNES title. Try and find someone critiquing this game who isn’t doing a parody of whiny, overly-analytical critics. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
FINAL FANTASY VII by SQUARESOFT (PS1)
First Released: January 31, 1997
Widely considered the greatest entry in the Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy VII captured the hearts of millions of males between the ages of 12 and 25 when it was released on the Sony Playstation in 1997. Mercenary Cloud Strife is recruited by childhood friend, Tifa Lockeheart, to fight alongside rebel group AVALANCHE in their war against the mega-corporation Shinra, Inc. The battle against Shinra turns into a quest to save the planet from total annihilation when Cloud’s old mentor-turned-nemesis, Sephiroth, emerges from the shadows and starts impaling people with his novelty-sized katana. FF7 was a triumph not only in terms of its addictive and intuitive game play, but in graphics, music, and its steampunk-influenced setting and story, unforgettable characters, and the untimely death of one of gaming’s most beloved heroines. No entry in the Final Fantasy series has received so many cries for a remake on a next-generation gaming platform as FF7, and no entry has had so great an impact on gaming and on gaming as a medium of serious storytelling.
The Plot: The mega-corporation, Shinra, Inc., is destroying the planet by turning the planet’s life-energy into a cheap fuel source. Cloud Strife, Tifa Lockheart, Barret Wallace, Aerith Gainsborough, Red XIII, Yuffie Kisaragi, Cait Sith, Vincent Valentine, and Cid Highwind face off against Shinra, but when the enigmatic Sephiroth returns, it becomes clear that he is the true threat to the planet.
The Good: The very best example of the JRPG. A sublime score by Nobuo Uematsu.
The Bad and Ugly: Aside from a few highlights since 1997, it marked the beginning of Square’s decline as an RPG developer.
Why You Should Play It: Grown men screamed and cried when its remake was announced earlier this year. Other than being a frightening social commentary, this proves the game is really, really good.
BANJO-KAZOOIE by RAREWARE (N64)
First Released: June 28, 1998
An anthropomorphic bird and bear enter an evil witch’s mystical lair to rescue the bear’s sister. To scale the tower, Banjo and Kazooie will have to dive headlong into series of magical portals that warp them to different themed locales where Gruntilda holds sway. From a tropical beach to a spooky, haunted mansion to a forest trapped in a time loop, the dynamic duo defeat baddies, rescue the innocent, and collect golden notes and puzzle pieces to unlock the depths and heights of Grunty’s lair and rescue Tootie. Running off Rareware’s success with mid-90s titles like the Donkey Kong Country series and Goldeneye, the award-winning Banjo-Kazooie became an instant classic and set the bar for all 3D platformers that followed it.
The Plot: The evil rhyming witch, Gruntilda, has kidnapped Banjo’s sister, Tootie, and plans to extract her beauty. The kindhearted Banjo and the loudmouthed Kazooie set off to save her.
The Good: It took everything Mario 64 did right and made it better. Grunty’s Lair is probably one of the best overworlds in all of video gaming. Banjo-Kazooie is a hilarious and an immensely-satisfying 3D platformer experience. The soundtrack is on my iPod.
The Bad and Ugly: The failed “Stop N’ Swap” mechanic was a cool idea, but using a memory card would have made a lot more sense, guys. I guess, technically, Gruntilda herself is bad and ugly?
Why Everyone Should Play It: It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s a quintessential N64 title that led to a tremendous sequel that I am presently playing through on my N64. It’s so beloved by fans that its true spiritual successor (I’m not looking at you, Nuts and Bolts) was fully-funded by devoted fans on Kickstarter in like…a month.
STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC by BIOWARE (PC/XBOX)
First Released: July 15, 2003
“For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.” This innocuous statement of Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope was used, nearly three decades later, as the basis for a major addition to the Star Wars myth. I bought an Xbox in 2003 for the sole purpose of playing Knights of the Old Republic because of its highly-addictive gameplay and customizable RPG-interface. I replayed the game six times in a row because of the story. I could spoil this for you right now, unversed Internet friend, but I’m not going to. I’m not gonna do you like that. But this is a story to experience, if for no other reason than the obnoxious commentary of HK-47. This story isn’t about Star Wars. It’s about friendship and forgiveness; betrayal and redemption. It’s about the tightrope walk between good and evil. And confound it all, it’s about lightsabers.
The Plot: It is 4,000 years before the events of the Star Wars films. You, an average Joe (or Josephine; the player character is customizable!), are discovered to be a prodigious Force-sensitive and are recruited into the Jedi Knights as the Jedi Civil War rages on. When you discover a “Starmap” on the planet Dantooine, it becomes clear to all that the key to dethroning the fallen Jedi, Darth Malak, can be discovered only by you. With a team of Jedi, soldiers, scoundrels, and droids at your side, you embark on a galaxy-wide quest to bring Malak down and restore peace to the Old Republic.
The Good: A serious, complex plot that still manages to be undeniably Star Wars. On top of this, it’s a ton of fun. And Jeremy Soule’s score is ree-donkulous.
The Bad and Ugly: It’s so short. (And apparently now that Disney owns Star Wars, KOTOR is myth, not canon. My heart.) Its sequel was a mess because they rushed it out.
Why Everyone Should Play It: Widely considered one of the greatest games of all time, and if you love Star Wars, it’s a tremendous addition to George Lucas’s space opera mythos. It’s also a prime example of why BioWare is one of our best contemporary developers.
THE WALKING DEAD by TELLTALE GAMES (PRETTY MUCH EVERY SYSTEM PLUS YOUR GOSH DERN PHONE IF YOU’RE INTO THAT SORTA THING)
First Released: Apri 24, 2012
The year this game came out, my brother worked at Gamestop. The store nearly sold all of its Xbox 360 physical copies. The last copy was simultaneously discovered by two housewives, who proceeded to tussle over which one of them could buy it for their teenage son. “Stop!” my brother shouted. “You don’t realize how ironic this is!”
If the 20th century taught us anything, it’s that humans literally possess the technology to destroy themselves. If Star Wars inaugurated a brief breath of optimism in the face of World-War-induced pessimism, then our culture’s present obsession with all things undead is pessimism’s angry retort. Zombies as we understand them today were iconized by George Romero, so The Walking Dead didn’t so much invent the genre as it did present it in a deeply-human way (The Walking Dead is categorically a drama, whereas Romero’s Dead films are gruesome dark comedies and satires), touching on our most primal fears and instincts: lack of food and shelter, fear of the unknown, the unleashing of death from the cage modern science and medicine have put it in, and a thousandfold reemergence of tribalism. Telltale’s Walking Dead game succeeds at the august task, much like Knights of the Old Republic, of achieving a level of storytelling that is on par or perhaps even exceedingly better than that of the original. Brilliance takes many forms, friends, and this apocalyptic tale strikes all the right chords. The sheer stress of playing this game forced me to put it down for a few months to center myself. In a world without laws, is it morally justifiable to execute or assassinate someone who has proven themselves a threat to you and yours? What lengths will you go to to protect a little girl you barely know? It’s a beautifully-written, beautifully animated, beautifully acted, and beautifully tragic story.
Plot Summary: Lee Everett is on his way to prison after being found guilty of murder, but when his police escort runs off the road after hitting a zombified pedestrian, Lee finds himself suddenly surrounded by the living dead. He soon befriends young Clementine, taking the girl under his wing as the two struggle to survive in a savage, amoral world.
The Good: Immersion. The decisions you have Lee make impact how other characters respond. The story feels like the real world. Literary tropes demand that love interests be explored and that characters have arcs. In The Walking Dead, many desires go unfulfilled, and lives are often cut tragically short, leaving the player breathless and unsatisfied with how things turned out. This, though, serves to drive home the cruelty of an apocalyptic world and draws the player further into this complex drama.
The Bad and Ugly: F-bombs left and right, to the point that the writer’s voice comes through. Different characters should have different ways of expressing anger and frustration.
Why Everyone Should Play It: Over eighty Game of the Year awards have to mean something. The Walking Dead thrust Telltale into the limelight and lead to other games like The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, and Game of Thrones.
We’re Not Done Yet
Some of you will be angry at me for not including other games in this list. Unbundle thy undies and stay tuned; we’re far from done. Part two is coming. Until then:
Agree? Disagree? Something nice to say? Leave it below.
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