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The Games I Keep Going Back To

Date: June 4, 2010
Author(s): Brett Thomas

Heading into a summer full of blockbuster titles that seem to all end up as rubbish, Brett takes a look at some of the top games from the past that really bring him back to gaming again and again. What do they have that so many games lack?



Introduction, First Two Games

I’ll start this off by being completely honest – I’m not much of a gamer anymore. Actually, there might be people that would argue with that point… but I am not a modern gamer, I should say. I don’t own a fancy desktop, Eyefinity, a 120Hz display, or even a monitor of more than 22 inches. The graphics card to my now defunct desktop is an NVIDIA 8800GT – I had a pair of them when they were new, and I never even used them for SLI. Really, a 22-inch display doesn’t require it!

Well, it’s not that I’m not a gamer – it’s that I’ve grown quite picky about what I’ll spend money on, and what I’ll play. When your computer turns to a MacBook Pro and your PS3 and Wii are your game-based company, you start to think about games you missed. Since my PS3 (luckily) has the backward-compatibility chips in it, I have a veritable wonderland of “retro” gaming at my disposal. And that’s a good thing, because the last game to really get me excited was BioShock.

Much of what we see nowadays is, let’s face it, crap. These are not the games that got us into gaming in the first place. Many of them are overpriced and overdone tech demos, with eight hours of playtime and no replay value (I’m looking right at you, Crysis). Granted, it’s always been this way – it’s not like crap games are something new. But through the cycles of hardware and generations, there’s always been some glistening diamond in the rough.

I don’t mean to sound like there’s no good games today – but history has not spoken on the current releases (I’m quite sure most will be forgotten), and nothing quite proves worth like the march of time. Since systems have retired and OSes have moved ‘forward’, some of the great old games have developed dedicated followings of people trying to make sure they work as time goes on. Not every game is worth that effort!

So, I’ve taken a little time to look back and see what games gave me goosebumps back “then,” and still do now (in no particular order). I want to share with you some of my favorite gaming history, and what made them so great in my book. And if you have some choices you think I missed (or just want to add to the list), hey… that’s what the forums are for!

Descent – Because vertigo is a good thing

Does anyone who ever owned a computer or a Sega Saturn NOT remember this game? According to Wikipedia, it also was on the PSOne, but I must have missed that release. Personally, I was playing it on my computer back at its release in 1995. I couldn’t get enough of it – though anyone who walked in the room while I was playing thought they might have to leave from fealing nauseated!

The spinning, twisting, zero-G world created by Parallax Studios was both dizzying and amazing. Free of the concept of “up” or “down”, the game radically redefined what a “shooter” could be. Even the story was compelling – you started as a hired gun for a beleaguered mining corporation trying to protect its miners, but the snippets of mission briefing slowly clued you in to the fact that you weren’t working for any saints. Over time, you could easily start to wonder if you’d be doing any of it were there not hostages to save… and really good pay.

Descent was a bit of a showcase game when it came out, but oddly it’s never really been “repeated” ever since, aside from its first sequel. I, for one, miss the cramped quarters and disorienting mines, and wish we could see it re-done in all its glory. Until then, it seems nothing will ever come close.

Deus Ex – Because choosing sides is hard when everyone’s lying

Have you ever been put in a situation where you thought you were right, but then realized that there really is no good guy? Whether it be warring friends, family or corporate workplace struggles, we’ve all had points where the decisions seemed clear at the time… but then just all fell apart. At least those decisions weren’t world-altering… that is, unless you were JC Denton.

Brainchild of Ion Storm’s Warren Spector, Deus Ex was anything BUT a first-person shooter – despite the fact that it did that incredibly well. For the probably five people who haven’t played, I won’t get too deep into spoilers, but suffice it to say that everybody lies, and most of them are fairly good at it. You start off as a glorified cop defending the world from terrorism, to find yourself knee-deep in intrigue, power struggles and a world much greater than you first imagined.

What really puts Deus Ex on a such a high pedestal though has less to do with its content or its depth, but more with the execution of both. The game throws fairly real decisions at you – grey-area moral choices that align with very amoral factions much larger than yourself. With each play through, it feels like the “good guy” can actually change, and your participation has real effects on how the storyline unfolds. It’s like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” hopped up on crack with explosive devices. Decisions early in the game greatly alter the entire flow as well as your character’s progression.

It’s sad that Deus Ex never got the sequel that it deserved – Invisible War was fairly well a miserable failure to anyone who had played the original game. Worse, its release was right at the time console porting became a way of life, and so the PC version was plagued with problems of a game clearly written for the Xbox. But even with those problems aside, it simply did not ever grab you with the same amazing story, depth, and development that the original did. Sadly, neither has anything else in recent time – BioShock is probably Deus Ex’s nearest living kin, and though a great game in its own right, it’s nowhere near the same.

More Great Games

Super Mario Bros. 3 – Because jumping that much HAS to be exercise

What retro list could NOT have this title? I’d put money down that this game is the most-desired ROM of any system on the whole of the Internet, followed maybe by Mega Man 2.

By all possible measures, Mario 3 is hardly “original.” In fact, it was by its release an incredibly familiar formula. Captured princess, koopas, eight worlds, yadda yadda… it was nearly textbook at this point. However, the addition of so many new suits, game mechanic changes and a hearty graphic update gave a completely new experience to the same old game.

Everything about Mario 3 was an improvement – from the addition of P-wings to escape difficult levels to Toad houses for goodies-on-the-go. All in all, it took a great formula and created arguably the best side-scroller of all time. Though it has been improved upon since and duplicated countless times, I can’t think of another game that “takes me back” to the days where gaming was an enjoyable series of timed button presses that was fun for everyone. In fact, I still fire up the old NES sometimes to take a few hops on Bowser’s head… and get the theme song stuck in my mind for a week after.

Thief – Because it’s all fun and games ’til someone gets hurt

Meet Garett the footpad – witty, good with a bow, and really not cut out for a bar fight. Thief, another wonderful development from the team under Warren Spector (really, the list of games to his credit is ridiculous) redefines the First-Person experience with Garrett as the protagonist – namely, smash and grab turns to “swipe and run.”

The greatest thing about Thief was its puzzle-like nature. Rather than powerups and massive firearms, you chose a limited loadout (that you had to purchase from previous profits) of goodies to hopefully get you and keep you out of harm’s way. If you did end up in a scuffle, you have just enough life to get away – once. However, It is quite possible to get through the game and steal every piece of loot without even so much as knocking out a guard.

Thief worked hard to blend a little fantasy with a whole lot of reality, and pulled it off for pretty much the entire game. There really isn’t a spot where you can say “No, that’s not fair,” but there are quite a few points where you may need to carefully reconsider approaches. As a testament to design, though, there are always at least two ways through any one scenario.

Baldur’s Gate II – Because being a god-child sucks worse than adolescence

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be half-god and half-man, we have an answer: it’s a lonely world full of prejudice, lying people, dangers around every corner, and a few good friends. One of them takes orders from his pet hamster.

Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn dropped onto the scene from Black Isle Studios in 2000. It’s a Role Playing Game designed around Dungeons and Dragons. For most people, that’s enough to make it either an immediate buy or an immediate pass. But whatever your thoughts on D&D Geekery (personally, it made the game an immediate purchase to me), the game has a lot to offer.

What makes BG2:SoA so amazing isn’t its pedigree (the original Baldur’s Gate was very, very well received) or its engine (which at the time was top-notch for an isometric view), but its characters. The people you meet along the way, both friend and foe, come alive as if in a great novel. Not only do they converse with you, but with each other and the outside world – each one with his or her own meanings, motivations and feelings.

Further, it’s possible to affect these very deep aspects over time by your own treatment of them, and what other companions they must spend their time with as they accompany you. Since each companion has different driving forces and different backgrounds, their abilities are of course quite different. But interestingly, so are all of their related jobs and quests, meaning that playing with different characters can make for a startlingly different game outside of the main story.

Though Dragon Age, Bioware’s recent attempt, tries to recreate this feel, it still misses on a number of fronts. I think a big part of this is the pace of the games – Dragon Age is a drumbeat to save the world, making you either feel lazy for exploring, or making time a non-issue and thus the pressing concerns feel forced. BG2:SoA is less about saving the world, and more about your character finding and developing him or herself. Pressing moments feel pressing, because not every moment of the game is. There aren’t many games that can be even more interesting by NOT telling you to do things this minute… or maybe that’s because they haven’t tried?

A Couple More and Conclusion

We’re almost to the end… and though I said that there was no order to the games, I have saved these last two for a reason. These two games are, in my opinion, the best ever released games on the planet for their respective types. Many will disagree with me here, and that’s great – I’d love to hear your choices. But hear me out…

Final Fantasy VII – Because bad things can happen to good people

Being an amnesiac sucks. But life gets better when a few good people happen to pick you back up and brush you off, and give you a cause to fight for… and a really, really big sword to do it with.

If you’ve not played FFVII, you’ve been under a rock. If you’ve not played any of the Final Fantasy series, well… you might be beyond help as a gamer. They all follow the same rough script and basic world mechanics, but they are not related games. Each one is essentially “teenager from small town saves world from danger,” but the who, what town, what world and what danger differs greatly.

Most of us who have played through much of the series recognize that the series has declined in recent incarnations, and hold up one of two clear “winners” – FFVI or FFVII. I, personally, liked the 3D, and loved the characters – something VI didn’t provide.

FFVII has a lot of something for every taste. There’s even a point where one can enjoy non-stop mini-games, including a snowboarding course. But at its root is an amazingly detailed RPG where your best characters can change by the minute and nobody is constrained to one role.

Even more than that, though, FFVII brings its epic world-saving struggle to life with character development that never happened in earlier titles. At many points in the game, you feel small compared to the suffering of the world around you, but there are balancing points of beauty and happy moments that make you connect to the world you’re saving.

FFVII was so gripping with its character development that one of my friends who is a big fan of the series threw his controller in disgust and quit playing when one particular character died. First he blamed the game mechanics, saying now there was no good healer. Over time, we found out that he had grown so attached to his team that he simply couldn’t play without that one character, despite the reasonable ease with which you could slot a different one in place.

The game is nowhere near as “sandbox” as it feels, but the linear progression in this case is a great thing because it’s paced well and allows for just enjoying the scenery. As you play the game, you get to watch the at-first simply misguided antagonist actually become evil, rather than starting off with some crackpot hell-bent to destroy the world. His pursuits create a domino effect that he himself doesn’t know what to do with, but he’s too overcome with desire for his ever-elusive goal to stop. Seriously, I’ve read worse classic novels.

There is only one game that could tie with this for a novel-turned-amazing-video-game…

Half-Life 2 – Who said physics was boring?!

Gordon Freeman: Scientist, world-saver, ass-kicker. The ultimate geek. The original Half-Life started the idea of a First-Person Shooter actually being a good story vehicle… though really not all that many actually lived up to it… but it took until Half-Life 2 for Gordon (and his amazing story) to really come into his own.

HL2 has toys – lots of toys. Some really neat firearms, some things better suited for different environments. But in all honesty, despite playing through the game several times (and being partway in it again), I couldn’t tell you what they are except as tools. Tools, and the gravity gun. The game does such a good job of imparting survival into you that you almost forget there’s armament until whatever you’re using runs out of ammo. There’s simply way too much going on around you to worry about what you’re shooting with. And if there’s not, you feel like you got away… for now.

I could talk about how HL2 has a great cast (notice the word choice), a great script, or a beautiful graphics engine that still puts a lot of newer games to shame… but that’s not giving the credit where it’s due. What’s amazing is how simply everything inside HL2 elicits some type of feeling. Whether it’s the concentration-camp feel of City 17, the gut-wrenching fear when you run out of precious ammo in Ravenholm, or the dizzying pace of survival riding on rafts and go-karts, you can’t help but feel something.

Sometimes, that something is just uncomfortable, fearful isolation… you against an overrun world. There’s really no compliment I can give a game higher than that. Art elicits feeling, and to me the argument of games vs. art ended the minute I cringed in my living room as I walked into a derelict apartment building to see how people were living.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed a rundown of some of the best games ever made. I know there are probably a whole bunch of them on your list that I’ve missed – and I’d love to hear them. But whatever ones you liked or hated on my list, one thing is for sure – there aren’t a lot coming out right now that could hold a candle to these great games.

Looking at my list, it’s pretty easy to see why – five out of seven are because of their character development and scope, one is because of its sheer ingenuity, and one is because of its complete improvement upon every aspect of a classical formula. Outside of Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia redefining their game mechanics, there’s not much of any of that going on.

Of course, my list lacks one area altogether – multiplayer. I’m a fan of the single-player experience, so I’ve left these off my list. So, feel free to add a few as you discuss this article in our forums!

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