Thursday, June 05, 2014

Top 10 Games of All-Time (Wrapup)

1.) The Last of Us
2.) Metroid Prime
3.) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
4.) Super Smash Bros Melee
5.) Dark Souls
6.) Pokemon Yellow
7.) Journey
8.) Resident Evil 4
9.) Super Metroid
10.) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

- Five Nintendo exclusives (six if you include RE4, which launched as a Gamecube "exclusive" but was later ported to other systems)

- Two Sony exclusives

- Two 3rd party titles (three if you include RE4, which eventually went 3rd party)

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Top 10 Games of All-Time (#1, #2, and #3)

1.) The Last of Us

The Last of Us is my favorite game of all time. Many aspects of this list proved difficult (see #2 and #3), but deciding on my top game wasn't one of them. For a title so recent, this may seem premature. How do I know my mind won’t change? Truthfully, I don’t know. But I do know this: I simply can’t think of a single game I’ve ever played that combined gameplay, graphics, and story more beautifully than The Last of Us.

Far too often, gamers confine themselves to very rigid definitions of gameplay, graphics, and story. Rather than focusing on enjoyment, we worry too much with the box or category in which a game fits. If you buy into these strict categories and definitions when evaluating The Last of Us, you're left with a game that isn't the best in terms of basic gameplay. It doesn't have the most technically proficient graphics ever made nor is it the greatest story every told. What you do have, however, is a game that excels in all three categories and results in an experience far greater than the sum of its parts.

All you have to do is look through my top 10 list and you'll see just how rare that is. Smash Bros has phenomenal gameplay, but next to no legitimate story. Journey has very little gameplay at all, but there's a beautiful, emotional story there. Naughty Dog should be commended for even attempting to balance story, graphics, and gameplay. But to excel at all three? They should be revered and admired.

Going into the game, I had read a few previews and watched the heavily discussed E3 demo, but for the most part, I tried to go in with as little information as possible, especially about the story. It also helped that Naughty Dog was appropriately tight-lipped about many of the story aspects.

The Last of Us' opening scene hooks you instantly. As any avid book reader knows, character is of the utmost importance and the game's first act creates an immediate bond between the player and the main character. Almost instantly, you care for his well-being and want to know what happens next. Stories are certainly subjective, yet I found Joel and Ellie's tale absolutely riveting. From the emotional beginning to the jaw-dropping finale, I didn't want to stop playing. 

Following the opening act, you're introduced to the gameplay elements as story and gameplay meet. You encounter two primary enemy types throughout the game: humans and the infected. Although some fans criticize the AI, I actually found the human behaviors excellent and just what I would expect from a game emphasizing stealth (especially on the game's highest difficulty setting, which is actually what I recommend). Human enemies attempt to flank and and surprise. The infected are more predictable, but a careful approach is still required. 

Having played through multiple times on the various difficulty settings, I saw scenarios play out a number of different ways. Often times, there's no "right" way to accomplish a certain task or to move through a series of enemies. Stealth often proves useful, but direct, aggressive approaches may work just as well. There are even times when fleeing completely may be the best option. The gameplay never feels like a disconnect from the story. They flow perfectly together with each serving the other just as designed. The innovative crafting system combined with the scarce resources truly creates a sense of survival. 

Speaking of aggression and violence, The Last of Us is absolutely brutal; yet in many situations, you actually feel bad about your actions. In this fallen world, finding anything good is a struggle. The violence isn't glorified; if anything, it helps to understand its consequences on a grand scale. The few moments where you do experience peace, good, and quiet are appreciated all-the-more because you know the sacrifices it took to get there.

The Last of Us is not a perfect game. But I can't possibly imagine it being better. My few complaints become irrelevant when I focus on the experience, rather than considering individual elements alone.
On top of the single player experience, Naughty Dog even created a compelling multiplayer mode. I spent far more time with the multiplayer than I ever expected. When taken as as whole, The Last of Us' story, gameplay, and graphics are far greater than any would be alone. The story is a heart-wrenching roller-coaster, the characters are real and memorable, the game mechanics are well designed, and the graphics are beautiful. 

Will I have a new #1 a few months down the road? Years down the road? Perhaps. Though at this moment in time and at this stage of my life, The Last of Us represents the pinnacle of gaming. Any game looking to bump it from the top spot has a monumental task ahead. 

2.) Metroid Prime

Last year, I restarted this blog with a dedicated video-game focus. I started with a post on why Metroid Prime was my favorite game of all-time. As you can see, it has been bumped down the list ever so slightly, but much of what I wrote in that post still stands. If not for The Last of Us, Metroid Prime would still be my favorite game of all-time. For now, it comes in at a very respectable #2.

Metroid Prime released in 2002 from the relatively unknown Retro Studios. Many longtime Nintendo fans were enraged when they learned one of Nintendo's most beloved franchises had been given to an up-and-coming studio, not to mention the longtime 2d series would not only be going 3d, but also 1st person. 

When the game released, critics were blown away. Not only did the game play well as a 1st person shooter/adventure, Retro took Metroid from 2d to 3d flawlessly. The series retained its sense of exploration, isolation, and epic boss battles. 

Prime is all about the polish, in so many ways. From the moment you first power-on your system, Prime sets itself apart. Sleek menus and an eerie, atmospheric tone immediately set the stage for your upcoming voyage.

Prime absolutely nails the atmosphere and sense of isolation, an area where many modern games fail. While there is  plenty of action, you play as a bounty hunter who is very much alone. There's an eerie silence from the first moment you set foot on the Space Pirate frigate Orpheon. 

You'll look through the abandoned space station to discover something went seriously wrong. You'll scan data logs and find a number of dead life forms along the way. The initial ship investigation concludes with an epic boss battle that leaves you knowing you're in for one heck of a ride. 

In terms of boss battles, Prime has plenty of them. You're often faced with seemingly insurmountable odds and pitted against creatures far more powerful than yourself. Like any good boss battle, these creatures have weaknesses you'll need to exploit. I will never forget the sense of awe when battling Meta Ridley, Thardus, and even the Parasite Queen from the game's opening sequence. The music, the sequence of events leading up to it, and the fights themselves are astounding.

Samus visits a wide-range of locations throughout her Prime adventure. Once you land on Tallon IV, the sense of isolation remains, despite the addition of more enemies. You're never bored or left wondering where to go next. From the ice-capped Phendrana Drifts to the underground Magmoor Caverns, you'll always want to push forward and explore even more of the beautiful planet.

I already mentioned Prime's polish and it really shines in the small details. The way Samus' reflection appears in her visor or the way it fogs up when she enters certain rooms all contribute to the overall experience. My personal favorite effect is the visible heat that rises from her arm cannon after you fire off a few bursts in quick succession. 

Prime is filled with these unique touches, extending even to the way the game loads. The load times are almost non-existent as a result of a clever Retro trick where the loading often takes place while you're already performing an action on-screen, such as riding an elevator or moving toward a locked door. You'll never see a single loading screen for the 10-15 hours you spend behind the visor.

If you've never played Metroid Prime, do yourself a favor and find a way to play it. Every Metroid fan has a preference, but the original Prime will always have a special place for me because it did something incredibly unique that had never been done before. Although it released more than a decade ago, Metroid Prime remains one of my favorite games of all-time.

3.) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Surely you didn't think I would have a top 10 list without a Zelda game making an appearance? For me, Ocarina of Time has always been the gold standard for Zelda. A case can certainly be made for Link to the Past, but Ocarina is undoubtedly the one that stands out for me.

Being an older game, I played Ocarina at a much younger age than I am currently, but I actually played it long after many of those around me. As I mentioned back in my Pokemon entry, I didn't truly become a dedicated gamer until around 1999. Ocarina, of course, launched in 1998. When I finally did make it back to the title a few years later, my lofty expectations were not only met, but exceeded.

Playing this game is fun for me today, even as an adult, but when playing as a child, it's so easy to be swept away into the fantasy world of Hyrule. Link, the protagonist, is a young boy to start the adventure so kid gamers instantly relate.

The first time you step into Hyrule field as the young boy is a vivid gaming memory I'll always treasure. You're just a small child stepping out into a massive world. As you take-in the surrounding sights, you'll soon realize the mountain off in the distance isn't just there for show. It's actually a place you'll visit. In fact, the more places you travel, the more you start to realize what a living, breathing world Hyrule actually is.

Stepping into Hyrule field for the first time isn't the only awe-inspiring moment in Ocarina. In fact, it's filled with those moments, which is one of the primary reasons it holds a special place in the hearts of so many gamers. There's the moment you first draw the master sword. The first time you play your ocarina. The first time you encounter a re-dead. And of course, the boss battles are all memorable in their own special ways.

The level design of Ocarina is familiar to any Zelda fan, which, like the 2d games before it, is centered around dungeons. The dungeon formula has been copied countless times by others, but few have the polish and confidence of Ocarina. When Link first stepped into 3d, it was a water-cooler moment for the entire gaming industry. Nintendo had taken a beloved 2d series and transitioned it perfectly into 3d. Link still ventured through dungeons, fought bosses, and solved puzzles, but he did it completely in 3d. The result was nothing short of amazing.

Like Naughty Dog with The Last of Us, Nintendo also did an excellent job balancing story, graphics, and gameplay with Ocarina. Although there are familiar tropes and expectations with Link and Zelda's story, it's still memorable and one that has a lasting impact. The gameplay, of course, is top-notch. While the graphics may look dated today, they were revolutionary for their time.

Ocarina of Time is now available across many different formats - Wii virtual console, 3DS remake, and even a special edition Gamecube version - there's really no reason not to play it. The game remains a timeless classic to this day and shouldn't be missed.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Top 10 Games of All-Time (#4)

4.) Super Smash Brothers Melee

There is not a single game I've spent more time playing than Super Smash Brothers Melee. Having launched early in the life of the Gamecube, it's also one of the few games I've played throughout an entire console generation. It's a game I enjoyed in high school and carried with me to college, but it's not just about the game itself. Smash is about the bonds, friendships, and rivalries that are born from multiplayer matches that fit the definition of "fun" more than any other game I've ever played.

Gamers and even people in general are often drawn to Smash Bros because of the fast-paced action, bright colors, and most importantly, the classic Nintendo characters. On the surface, observers see a fun, party game with wacky items and zany stages. Admittedly, the party-game style and atmosphere is what drew me to the Nintendo 64 original and the subsequent Gamecube sequel.

Over time, I played Melee with many different people. I started with a neighborhood friend and eventually my dad and two sisters even joined-in on the action. Throughout high school, I started playing with friends on a pretty consistent basis. A few of the more dedicated players and myself started playing more frequently and tweaking various options. We would turn certain items on/off, play only on certain stages, shift from timed matches to stock matches, and so on. Eventually, we decided to remove items completely and only play on stages that didn't actively affect players. Basically, we removed the elements of chance to result in a game more based on skill.

Many games would crumble after taking away so many options and stripping the game down to a bare-bones state. But with Melee, the opposite happened. My friends, myself, and gamers around the world discovered there was actually an incredibly deep, intricate fighting game underneath the party-game veil. We started to have more fun - and more competition - by playing in this style.

Turns out, Melee had a whole host of advanced techniques underneath the surface. Many of them were difficult to master, especially against another human player. Crouch-canceling, wave dashing, edge-hogging are just a few of the strategies dedicated players attempted to learn.

Once I went off to college, I made new friends...and new Melee rivals. I quickly discovered there were so many others who also preferred to play Melee as more of a competitive game rather than a party game. We poured countless hours into the game, playing night after night. The crazy thing? It never got old. I can probably count on one hand the number of games I could play repeatedly, for years, and never have them feel old or stale. We were constantly improving and learning new things about the game. It probably helps that many of us were ultra competitive and wanted to be the absolute best we could be.

Whether you prefer party games or competitive games, Melee is great for both and I don't fault anyone for enjoying one over the other. What's incredible is how Nintendo and HAL Laboratory created a game that so effortlessly works in either environment. In fact...I think I'd like to go play right now.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Top 10 Games of All-Time (#5)

5.) Dark Souls

If you've spent any time at all on the internet, you know how often games develop an intense, passionate following that may not always translate into mass success. But those fans remain ever vigilant, taking every opportunity to encourage others to play the game they feel so strongly about. Dark Souls is one of those games. And should play it.

Believe me, I know how easy it can be to ignore my pleas. After all, I ignored Demon's Souls and Dark Souls for years. The games were described to me as insanely difficult, ruthlessly unforgiving, and incredibly deep. With such a description, the excuses came easy.

In fact, I started Demon's Souls on three different occasions. After playing for just a few moments the first time, I promptly deleted it from my system, shaking my head at all those who felt so strongly about it. Then I tried it again a few months later and liked it slightly better, but still not enough to play it to completion. And finally, on the third time, everything clicked. I beat the game and jumped straight into Dark Souls with a full understanding of what I was getting into. Yes, it's insanely difficult, ruthlessly unforgiving, and incredibly deep; it's also fun, rewarding, and unlike anything you've played before, save for Demon's Souls.

At its core, Dark Souls is a third-person, action-adventure-RPG. You'll upgrade stats, collect weapons, loot, armor, and yes...souls. Souls act as your currency throughout the game. Anything you want to purchase will require souls, which are obtained by defeating enemies. Oh and if you lose all the souls you've collected. You'll have one shot to return and reclaim the lost souls, but if you perish before you reach them, they're lost forever.

The system is indeed unforgiving, but it's also addictive and oh-so-rewarding. One major difference from Demon's is in the level design and layout. Dark Souls is one massive, inter-connecting world, of which you find yourself throw right in the middle. For a while, you'll feel like you're wandering aimlessly until suddenly you'll emerge in a memorable location. This happens time and time again as you play the game and it never gets old. By the end of the game, you'll have a complete picture of the world in your head, and how everything connects together.

I said Dark Souls is unlike anything you've ever played and part of my reasoning stems from its combat, which all happens in real-time. Standard enemies are more akin to bosses in most other games. If you try and tackle even the most basic enemies without proper movement and preparation, you'll be destroyed rather quickly.

What's incredible about Dark Souls is the freedom it offers you in how to fight your enemies. This is largely tied to your character build and the stats you choose to boost. A ranged sorcerer or pyromancer? A strong, shield-carrying warrior or knight? Or maybe a lithe, quick-striking hunter? The amazing result is you can succeed with almost any choice. It's all about perfecting your style of play, exploiting enemy weaknesses, and playing to your strengths with every enemy encounter...including bosses.

You'll fail time and time again as you make your way between bonfires (the only safe havens in Dark Souls), and when you actually do have success, you'll be rewarded with a boss encounter. Dark Souls has a collection of the most challenging, intricate bosses I've ever experienced in gaming. They're varied in a wide-range of aspects such as size, attack pattern, quickness, weapons, and defenses. There will be times when you truly think they're unbeatable and it's easy to throw in the towel, but my personality is the opposite. When presented with an insurmountable challenge, my pursuit only intensifies. In fact, this is one of the core reasons I connect so strongly with the game. The ultimate sense of accomplishment is totally worth the rigorous journey to get there.

One reason the repeated failures are easy to accept is because of Dark Souls' fairness. I'm not sure I ever had a situation where I didn't come to fully understand exactly what I did wrong to result in my death. That's not saying there won't be times of confusion. But once you learn the system and the enemies, you'll understand the why. Every death is a learning experience. Once you're able to grasp that, then Dark Souls becomes a far more enjoyable experience.

For years, I ignored the pleas and cries of so many passionate fans who said: Play. This. Game. If you've ignored Dark Souls for this long and consider yourself a hard-core gamer who loves a challenge, it's time to cut the excuses. Forget the rest of your backlog. Heck, forget Watch_Dogs, Mario Kart, and even Destiny if you' haven't played Dark Souls yet. "Prepare to die" goes without saying...but I think it more apt to say: "Prepare for one the best games of all-time."

Friday, May 23, 2014

Top 10 Games of All-Time (#6)

6.) Pokemon Yellow

To those who know me personally, I would guess this selection comes as a surprise. It's true, Pokemon Yellow probably wouldn't have the type of impact today that it had on me nearly 15 years ago. However, it marks the point in my life where I officially became a gamer. In fact, Pokemon Yellow is almost solely responsible for me becoming as passionate about games as I am today.

Sure, I'd owned an original NES, as well as a Genesis, but I'd never stayed up late into the night playing hour after hour. Don't get me wrong, I loved Mario and Sonic, but as a really young child, I lacked the patience to play either game to its full completion. I'd never poured over every single detail and explored every single area of a game...until Pokemon.

I'm not exactly sure how the game managed to completely hook me, other than maybe it's just the Nintendo magic. It manages to be approachable, yet challenging. There's plenty to do in the game, but you'll also be rewarded for your efforts. I picked up on this pretty quickly so I wanted to know everything I could about the game.

I read through the instruction manual. I read about it online. Talked about it with friends. In game, I spoke to every character I came across. I learned about HP, antidotes, the difference between a master ball and an ultra ball, repels, and how to target and exploit enemy weak points. So many features that are RPG staples today, I learned from Pokemon.

I think part of the reason I even had the opportunity to fully experience Pokemon is because it was portable. I took my Gameboy Color everywhere; on car trips, vacations, heck - even the bathroom. I wanted to catch them all, evolve them all, and assemble the best team possible. I can still remember my favorite party, the unstoppable combination of Blastoise, Charizard, Venusaur, Gyarados, Zapdos, and - the prize of my collection - Mewtwo.

I also played through Red and Blue (I told you...I did everything), but I chose Yellow as #6 on my list for two reasons: 1) It's the superior game because you can obtain all three starter Pokemon from Red and Blue without having to trade and 2) It was the first Pokemon game I played.

You can probably sense my passion coming through just talking about the game. The incredibly strong feelings I have toward the other 9 games on this list owe it all to Pokemon Yellow. 

I'm certain I will play better games and enjoy other games more, but no game will ever have the kind of impact on me that Pokemon did. It showed me just how deep, immersive, challenging, and fun a game could be.

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