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.