Friday, May 15, 2009

My Top 10 Video Games

Okay, let this be known first: I'm what's considered an "old school" gamer. It basically means I've been gaming since the Colecovision and Atari days (late 70s/early 80s), and that therefore most of what I consider to be the greatest games of all time come from the era when home video gaming consoles were just spilling onto the scene.

To younger gamers: you probably won't agree with 95% of this list. Even if you're a young gamer who likes playing retro games, you still won't quite "get" it, I imagine. After all, some of what made all these games so great were the times during which they were released. If your favorite Zelda game is Ocarina of Time, then you might be a big enough Zelda fan to appreciate the original game, but young enough that the graphics and game mechanics throw you off. But to gamers as old as me, we remember that, at the time of its release, no other game on the planet looked like the original gold-plated Zelda. Ocarina is a better game, yes, but it didn't have the same impact on me as the first game that started the whole series.

And that is the point of this list. Not only are these games the best home console games to ever come out on any system at the time of their release, but they were the games that had the most *IMPACT* on me throughout the years. That right there is the distinguishing factor, and the reason why this list is not a definitive one, but personal. These are MY top games, for reasons I will try to elucidate in the following paragraphs.

So, starting from least to most, here now is my list:

10) Super Metroid (SNES)
To this day, this is the definitive Metroid game. 2 games preceded it in the series (one apiece on the NES and Game Boy), but by the time it showed up on the Super Nintendo in 1994 it was clear the folks over at the mighty 'N' had perfected the recipe. I love all the pre-Gamecube Metroid games, but this is the one most people hold up as the gold standard of the series. For me, it had the impact of being the last ever game I played before moving to college. It came out right at the tail end of senior year in High School and basically stole my life for the next month or so that it took to complete it. At the time, I was heavily into my science fiction reading addiction, and Super Metroid felt the most sci-fi'ish of any game I ever played up to this point besides Flashback. It gave me the visuals I needed to fuel my own dreams of writing in the genre. Thanks, Samus!

09) Grand Theft Auto III (PS2)
Single-handedly creating a whole new sub-genre in the collective oeuvre of video gaming categories is no small feat, especially during the dawn of the Ps2/Xbox/Gamecube era when most gamers had thought they'd seen it all. But that's exactly what R* Games did when they released GTAIII to the masses in October of 2001, introducing to the console world the concept of the "sandbox" game. Although the idea was not new to PC gamers, it had never been rendered to such gorgeous heights on the home systems before. GTAIII's open environments, fully interactive city, and gritty sheen drew me in with the swiftness; its superbly crafted story and well-acted cutscenes made the finishing touches to a fine gourmet meal. I got so immersed in this title that before long I honestly had a hard time telling the difference between game and reality -- that's how on-point this living, breathing, and criminally insane city of Liberty City had been rendered. Even well after I had beaten the game did it maintain its stranglehold on my imagination, making me an instant fan of any and all future installments to the series.

08) Golden Axe (Genesis)
Sega's getting a pretty bad rep on this list, I know, but this is the one game on the Genesis that I couldn't ignore. I first played it at the tender age of 12, a time of transition for many young boys. And so -- ahem -- of course I payed special attention to a certain barely-clothed female protagonist by the name of one Tyris Flare. Golden Axe was a game the likes of which I had never seen, though. At the time, its combat felt realistic, and the special attack moves and magic abilities wowed me beyond belief. Being able to choose between 3 main characters, in addition to playing co-operatively with a friend at the same time, seriously boosted this game to the top of my Genesis library. I cannot count the number of times my brother and I played through this rather short, but challenging, title. Golden Axe completely took over our world during the spring/summer of '89. And since I was just getting into sports and roaming the streets of NYC at this time, it will forever remind me of baseball, Central Park, and swimming pools. It's a very common theme with me that a particular video game will remind me of where I was and what I was doing during the time I played it. Funny how that works, no?

07) Contra (NES)
Okay, I don't think anyone needs to be reminded why this game simply ROCKS! Old and new school alike, Contra is one of those mythic titles that gamers of all generations seem to have played at some point. How could you not? Konami was on a roll during the late 80s, with a slew of mega hits on the Nintendo Entertainment System like Castlevania and Gradius to name a few. But Contra cashed in on the whole action-movie craze of the mid-80s, stealing influences from movies like Commando, Aliens, and the Rambo series. To hit this matter home even harder, the game's protagonists, Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, bore very strong resemblances to Sly Stallone and Arnie Schwarzenegger -- much to the delight of teen boys everywhere (yours truly included). The game was pure action from beginning to end, with the gamer having to use ingenious tactics and excellent weapons management skills to stave off a seeming never-ending horde of alien marauders trying to take over the planet. With an ending that I consider one of the most thrilling capstones to a game ever (despite its rather low-key visuals), Contra -- like many titles on this list -- was one of the games I NEVER got tired of playing. It's the type of title you can pick up at any time and just start playing as if you'd never missed a day. I've beaten it so many times that I've lost count. Like another game further below on this list, this was one of the few titles I could beat with my eyes closed and while barely ever dying. And that's nothing to snort at, since Contra's considered by most gamers to be one of the hardest ever to complete in one continue (sans the infamous "Konami" cheat code.) But I've done it, and many times I might add!

06) Super Castlevania IV (SNES)
Oh yeah! This is it, baby! This is the game that defined my sophomore year in high school! The Super Nintendo had only been out for 3 months when this title hit shelves in late 1991 (Christmas time) -- and it took everyone by storm. No more so than Castlevania fans, to which I claimed ardent membership. I had been playing the series since the very first game on the NES, and I remember all but crying to get this next installment for Xmas. I still remember popping the cartridge in and my jaw dropping at the wonderfully atmospheric and creepy intro movie, which clued us in that this was a retelling of the classic tale set forth in the very first game; of one courageous Simon Belmont, and of Dracula's emergence after being defeated by your ancestor, Trevor Belmont, as depicted in Castlevania III. Simon has been and will always be my favorite Belmont, and this was his fitting magnum opus. SCV-IV was a groundbreaking game at the time for its 8-directional whip movement (compared to the previous games' 2 directions) and the generous use of the SNES's patented "Mode 7" scaling and mapping techniques. But more importantly to me, it had the deepest and most involving level designs I had ever seen. And the soundtrack, even to this day, simply owns my soul! Everything about this game screams masterpiece. So much so that I was hard-pressed to put it down at only number 6 on this list. Others will point to Symphony of the Night as being the gold standard by which all other Castelvania games should be judged. But, while I enjoyed this later title immensely, too, it can never hold a candle to the joy I carry for number IV.

05) Metal Gear: Solid (PS1)
Yet another Konami greatest hits and, like many series which can trace their origins back to the 80s and the NES, MGS found new life on the emerging juggernaut of gaming that the PlayStation would become in the mid to late 90s. I had played the original back in the day, but oddly skipped the subsequent games until 1998 when Solid arrived and bitch-slapped the gaming community into submission, garnering numerous awards left and right like they were going out of style. With its gritty spy-thriller sensibilities, gravelly-voiced protagonist, and superbly acted and directed storyline, this game had it all in spades! At the time, I was a relative newcomer to the PS1, having only just purchased the console over the summer. But when I set my eyes on this beauty in October of the same year, I was hooked FOREVER! I know I've heaped enough superlatives on all the games mentioned so far, but honestly, words alone cannot adequately describe how awesome Hideo Kojima's masterpiece is. It's definitely in my top 3 of favorite PS1 games. Not to mention it changed the world of gaming forever, coining the term "stealth action" even though Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (also on the PS1) rightfully kicked off the whole craze on consoles earlier that year. But with MGS, players truly felt like real spies, where the story's objectives were to be approached in secrecy rather than in all-out combat, guns blazing. The game rewarded players who utilized shadowy, methodic and individual takedowns rather than aggressive bullet showers to neutralize an enemy squad. And the twists -- HOO BOY! The twists, they just kept on coming! I shouted "WTF?" so many times during the numerous engaging cutscene that my own cat started avoiding me in the halls of my house afterwards. Sorry, Tiger, poor chap!

04) The Legend of Zelda (NES)
Believe it or not, there was once a time when I absolutely despised this game. Back in 1987 when it was released I was only 10 years old and, I hate to say it, too immature to truly appreciate what Shigeru Miyamoto had created. But to be fair, Zelda was a big departure at the time from all the other console games out there. More like a PC game, it was one of the first to emphasize lengthy exploration and truly grueling dungeon crawling that left most gamers' heads spinning, including myself. It was my very first precursor to the RPG genre in some respects, and initially I put the game aside as being too cerebral for my tastes. I was more used to kung-fu beat em ups and shooting games at this age. But about a year later, out of sheer boredom, I decided to give it another spin. This time I vowed to make a chore out of it, bringing pencils and paper (for mapping) with me and painstakingly marking every corner of the world of Hyrule as I explored. The rewards of my efforts were instantaneous! Suddenly I had gotten the first piece of the Triforce, and some nifty new weapons to aid my quest along the way. It wasn't long before I was consumed day and night (when I didn't have pesky schoolwork to tend to), and even began to dream in Zelda sprites. Whoa! I remember beating this game (finally!) and thinking: what have I done? Somehow, against all odds, I beat this terribly difficult and grown-up game all by my lonesome! I was beyond proud of myself. It taught me a valuable lesson; that sometimes the most rewarding games are those you really have to put a ton of effort into in order to persevere. This quality would hold me in good reserve when it came time to take on true RPGs like Dragon Warrior . . . and the very next title on this list.

03) Final Fantasy (NES)
Oh lordy, this was definitely the case of biting off more than one can chew. My brother had received this game for his birthday in November of 1990, and at first we couldn't tell our asses from our elbows when it came to figuring out just what the hell was going on. Although we had played Dragon Warrior the year before, we were still unfamiliar enough with the conventions of the console Role Playing Game (RPG) to make Square's original masterpiece a severe pain in the rear. At least at first. Pretty soon both my brother and I were taking turns levelling up and kicking IMP ass all over the forest, and it became apparent that this game was like no other. Whereas Dragon Warrior had left me severely wanting in both the story and sheer fun departments, Final Fantasy took a hold of my imagination in the worst way. I was delirious with a desire to actually BE in this world; to fight alongside my friends and save an imperiled world from a truly dangerous and foreboding adversary. The stakes in this game felt BIG TIME, and subsequently the rewards were equally fantastic. The motivations and development of the characters -- both primary and secondary -- took on a gravitas usually reserved for epic novels. This was the first true video game epic, however, and its success would spur a long-running series of detached sequels still going strong to this day (FF XIII releases later this year, in fact). I credit this game and this game alone for my love of all things fantasy, not only in games, but in visual and literary mediums as well. That's saying a lot!

02) Resident Evil (PS1)
The last two games on this list are those which have had the most tremendous affect on my gaming life. The original Resident Evil played a very important role in rehabilitating me from the video game funk I had found myself in during college. When I left home after graduating high school, I was burned out on the video game wars. Sega was experimenting with its 32x and CD systems, and rumors were that Nintendo had its own CD-based console in the works. Added to the fold were new additions to the next-gen console race two years later, like Atari's Jaguar . . . and this new-fangled piece of hardware called the "Play Station" by Sony of all people. Yeah, as if *they'd* stand a chance (I thought). After graduating college, I had left video games behind. Aside from my SNES, which still saw the occasional use, I just had no desire to delve into the current crop of home console madness. Until I saw RE. Just one test run had me hooked, and I ended up purchasing a used PS1 system and a copy of this game right on the spot! For the entire month of July after college, I combed every square inch of virtual real estate this title had to offer. The atmosphere and pathos of being trapped in a spooky mansion fighting leagues of zombies and other assorted bio-engineered baddies really gripped me in the worst way imaginable. Moreover, I was completely snookered in by the engaging story. It's dark and mature-rated subject matter showed that Sony's new system had balls, something Nintendo very rarely demonstrated anymore. Since I was now a grow-up gamer, I needed grown-up games to appease me. Resident Evil offered this up and then some! So, yeah, RE was my gateway drug. Which, I guess, makes Sony my pimp daddy, no? Thanks, Sony!

01) Ninja Gaiden (NES)
Before 1989, there was no console game called Ninja Gaiden. And before Ninja Gaiden, there were no games with cinematic cutscenes between stages, like so many miniature movies playing out in 8-bit wonder. Nowadays, this is standard issue of course. But back in the late 80s, this was fairly exciting new ground being broken. And I fell headlong into a whirlwind love affair with this series that has pwned almost every waking moment of my childhood, teen, and young adult life. But lets backtrack to the game that started it all. A friend at school lent me the game in the Spring of 89, stating that it was simply too difficult to be beaten. But when I popped the cartridge into my little grey box, immediately I was gripped by the opening cinematic displaying the now legendary duel between the villain, Malth, and Ryu Hayabusa's father, Ken. Ryu set out to get some old-fashioned ninja revenge and, along the way, found himself delving deeper and deeper into a global conspiracy involving double-dealing CIA agents, monstrous demons, and a madmen intent on unshering in hell on Earth. The ridiculous difficulty level of the stunts and enemies thrown the player's way made this not one of but THE most challenging game of the 8-bit console generation, yet it is the one thing I can claim genius at without blinking. For I not only went on to beat this supposedly unbeatable title, but own it in every single way imagineable. I learned all the tricks and skills, figured out all the angles, and memorized every single location of enemy movements and collectible items. I can beat the game without ever losing a life (yeah, you read that right!), and can even make it all the way to the penultimate chapter without even being touched. In this one arena, I can claim that I am king. I have never met or even heard of anyone that can match me. I know it sounds like arrogance (and, yeah, it is), but you simply don't understand how much I love this game! It, above all other titles, defines me as a gamer. Even to this day I cannot get tired of playing this. It's weird, I know. I should seek help, sure. But honestly, if this is insanity, then commit me now!


And so, there you have it. As I stated above, you may disagree with the exact ordering of this list. You will most certainly cry foul at the absence of certain other lauded titles, or question how a couple of these games can be on anyone's Top 10 list. But, as I mentioned, this is strictly based on my own personal experiences. Like in biology, my gaming DNA is uniquely different from anyone else's. The buliding blocks of titles that make up my digital pedigree are varied and distinct. While you may have your own list, I'm sure everyone can agree that there have been some games released over the past 30-odd years or so that have truly changed the face of entertainment and pop culture in general, and the video game industry in specific. Games are the currency of my ideas. They have helped mold and channel my imgaination, which of course enhances my writing.

Today I am still gaming strong, expending most of my energies between the Xbox 360 and PS3. Of course, I have a lot less time to game than I used to as a kid. Whole weeks can go by between sessions -- sometimes even months! But even the new-fangled designs and technologies of today's cutting-edge developments cannot stymy my enthusiasm.

In fact, they continue to feed it!


  1. I'd like to attest to David's prowess at gaming. I've been watching him play games for YEARS and he is every bit as good as he says he is. As to Ninja Gaiden, there is no arrogance involved in his claim (David's just being humble ;-)because it's quite simply the truth . I've WATCHED him do it. I've previously blogged about his playing capabilities and the fact that they are so good I'm quite content to sit and watch him play. It's like watching a freaking movie when he plays! I'm not as much of a gamer, but most of the choices he picked I agree with. Super Castlevania IV has to be my favorite game. It's the first thing I bought when I finally got a SNES. That and Super Metroid but I was actually good at Castlevania hence my immense like for the game. Great post, man.

  2. Aww, thanks!

    Yeah, and SCV IV was the game you and I played the most together. Did that soundtrack not rock or what?!!

    Good memories . . .

  3. That soundtrack is still in heavy rotation for me to this day. I was SO happy when you found it and got me a copy. Love it!

  4. You do know I'm going to be rocking to this soundtrack at work today now, right? :)

  5. Oh I'll have to pass this post to my sons. I know Legend of Zelda is one of their all time favs and that's saying something.

  6. It is, Kim. It says they have good taste! :)

    But I'm glad to hear even the younger generation knows a good game when they play it!

    There's a lot of other games I could have put on that list. Including a major oopsie on my part -- God of War! I don't know how that slipped my mind, but GoW is the most significant game to me in the past 8 years or so. I should have put it in instead of Golden Axe, I realize now.

    But oh well. Maybe I'll do another Top 10 list of games which appeared AFTER 2001, in which case GoW would be my number 1.


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