In the meantime, it's occured to me that I haven't updated my "top ten games of all time" list in quite some time. Actually, I'm not sure I ever posted it on the blog before. The list used to be occupied with a lot of games from my childhood but recent attempts to "go home again" have shown that games that passed for great in the 80's simply don't always hold up. Not only in terms of appearance, but primarily in gameplay. Suffice to say, the rose-colored glasses have been smashed beneath the hefty boot of reality and only games that I've actually played relatively recently and still enjoyed a great deal make the cut.
So, without further ado...
- 2001, PopTop Software (PC)
Yes, my favorite game of all time is, essentially, a Dictator-simulator. That should tell you about how much of a control-freak I really am. Tropico lets you take the role of "El Presidente" and run your own tropical island anyway you wish. You build infrastructure, an economy, and wealth through agriculture, tourism, and industry all the while you must master the delicate balance of appeasing the many political and social factions on your island. Making matters worse is the occasional hurricane and the very real possibility of a military coupe and possible invasion from the US or Russia should you stray too far towards Communism or Capitalism, respectively. Throw in an excellent sense of humor, lush graphics, a very intuitive interface, and a fantastic soundtrack and you have a classic city-building strategy game that is impossible to put down. Factor in the "Paradise Island" expansion pack and you corresponding Map Editor and you have unlimited fun.
*Favorite Moment: One of the traits for your custom Presidente is the ability to have Tourette's Syndrome. It causes a decrease in approval from the Intellectuals faction thereby making them more likely to rebel, but you gain extra money each year from broadcasting your speeches to the Americans via Pay-Per-View!
2) Shenmue 1 & 2
- 2000, 2003, Sega (Dreamcast & Xbox)
One of the great tragedies in the entertainment world is that this masterpiece of story telling has never been nor likely ever will be finished. No game has ever evoked such emotion out of me as Yu Suzuki's ambitious story of the Japanese teenager, Ryu Hazuki, and his quest to avenge his father's murder. Players took on the role of Ryo and explored various cities in Japan and eventually in Hong Kong in search of clues, but not like in other games. Shenmue made you eek out a living. It made you find places to sleep each night, find odd-jobs to earn money, and be home at a certain hour each night to get your rest. You also had to dilligently work on your martial arts training and ability to navigate foreign lands. For me, the game was both an action-adventure game and a travel simulator. The worlds were bright and massive and the story mystical. In many ways this amalgamation of genres practically defies description. It has to be played to be appreciated.
*Favorite Moment: I have many favorite moments from this game, but I'd have to say my absolute favorite moment is a tie between the very first time you make your way into town in the first game. Seeing the hustle and bustle of the city and knowing that every shop could be entered and every person spoken to was a totally new thing for me and games and it wows me still. But I must also mention the final hour of the second game. Here you finally make it to the countryside in China and are alone with a beautiful girl your age on a trail leading to her village. You can walk for as long as you want, but you are also free to spend as much time asking her all sorts of questions and even asking her follow-up questions. But not as some sort of investigator, but rather as a boy trying to get to know a girl he might fall in love with. It's a beautiful piece of storytelling and the info you do learn from her really helps catapult the story into what should have been the third game in the series. Unfortunately, the overly-ambitous project proved too expensive to finish and gamers like me will never learn how the story ends.
- 2003, Omiya Soft (PS2)
The more games I play the more I realize that sometimes I want something a bit slower paced, more strategic, and just plain fun. Like board games. And that's why Culdcept makes the list. This strategy game is a perfect blend of Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering and not only provides for plenty of strategic card-based gaming, but it also includes the luck of dice rolls, and relative quick pace of board games. Players build a deck of cards from their collection and move around a map landing on different colored tiles that they can claim as their own by assigning a monster to them. Then, as other players land on your property they can either pay the toll or battle your monster with cards of their own. There are many subtle layers of strategy to the game, such as the ability to level-up the properties and even invest in different elements. Best of all, you get new cards whether you win or lose and with over 500 cards in the game, it's possible to build many different decks and employ a number of different strategies.
*Favorite Moment: Anytime I had the chance to play this with another live opponent. Sometimes it was my wife, but other times my friend Brad would come over and we'd play together. The game also makes it very easy to trade cards with one another and even helps point out duplicates and cards that one player has and the other doesn't. All of this made for a very childhood-ish feeling and was a great reminder of what gaming should be like. The sequel comes out next month on the Xbox 360 and I expect it to take a spot on this list.
4) Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
- 2003, Nintendo (Gamecube)
Many fans of the Zelda franchise will be shocked to see this game listed here instead of the far more universally praised Ocarina of Time and that is for two reasons: First, I only played Ocarina for a couple hours, and secondly that's because in writing the strategy guide for Wind Waker, I got to learn the ins and outs of the game at a much deeper level than I suspect 90% of those who played it. But even aside from that, I just knew from the moment that I first put the Japanese version of the game in the machine that this was something special. The game was both true to the roots of the franchise and also absolutely incredible to look out. The nay-sayers who complained about the "kiddie" look of the cel-shading graphics couldn't have been more wrong. And, I will even go so far as to say that I honestly enjoyed the extended sailing portions. The game was epic in scale and duration and there wasn't a single ounce of gameplay that I didn't wring from it. I saw it all and believe it to be one of the high water marks in gaming, pun fully intended.
*Favorite Moment: My favorite moment in this game was simply seeing the incredible graphics and animation come to life. Link's facial gestures and clumsy childish actions were so beautifully illustrated that I get the warm & fuzzies just thinking about it.
5) Catan Live
- 2007, Big Huge Games (Xbox Live Arcade)
I've written a lot about this game over the past year and for good reason. This digitization of the world-famous board game is, for me, reason enough to own an Xbox 360. The game blends luck with strategy and adds a touch of diplomacy to the mix and challenges players to acquire the necessary resources to build up their settlement before the opponents do. Players take turns placing settlements and cities and trying to build roads on the hexagonal-shaped board while acquiring resource cards through dice rolling and strategic placement of their units. Games take only 20-30 minutes to play and the board is never the same twice. Those who win most are usually those who can shift their strategies on the fly and adapt to what might be an unlucky roll or settlement placement.
*Favorite Moment: Learning how to play and finally, after seeing the board game in stores for years and never buying it, winning my first match. The game was everything I had hoped it would be and proved as addictive and entertaining as any other game I played in a very, very long time.
- 2006, Capcom, (PS2)
I gave serious thought to putting this above Wind Waker on the list since I often describe this game by saying it "out-Zelda's the Legend of Zelda" but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Like the aforementioned Wind Waker, I authored the strategy guide for Okami and therefore have seen every nook and cranny this massive game has to offer. And I loved it. Okami takes place in feudal Japan and puts players in the role of a wolf-god with the ability to perform various godly feats with a calligraphy brush. Different brush strokes equate to different abilities and tricks ranging from attacking an enemy to changing daylight to night. In many ways the game does play like a Legend of Zelda game, but without the innocent sheen. Your spritely-little companion is forever making various sexual inuendos, the writing was far more compelling than many games, and by no means is the game as easy.
*Favorite Moment: I don't want to spoil anything for those who haven't yet played this gem of a game (which is re-releasing on the Wii this year) but there is a scene in which the wolf and his companion separate. I challenge anyone who loves dogs to not tear up during this scene. As someone whose mind does wander to the sorrful inevitability that my pets are going to die one day, I found this scene to be painfully beautiful and easily the most memorable moment in the game (there's a happy ending though, so don't worry).
7) Monopoly Tycoon
- 2001, Infogrames (PC)
This 3D real-time strategy take on the classic board game is another true gem of a game. The game begins in the 1930s with players managing their funds and building various stores and apartment buildings and whatnot on different city blocks to try and accumulate wealth. Each morning hundreds of citizens make their way into the city to shop and go to work and it's up to you to research their needs and build shops that fill them. As you move through the decades the needs of the public change. While they may be fine with a bakery in the 1940's, they're going to want a full-blown grocery store before long. Similarly, their entertainment demands also evolve over the years, causing you to constantly upgrade your businesses. Honestly, although the game bears many of the Monopoly staples, the game is essentially a fast-paced economics-based city builder. With great graphics and fantastic period music.
*Favorite Moment: After playing the initial batch of scenarios on various difficulty settings, I finally had that gaming epiphany and understood how to play the game far more succesfully than I was. Before long I was staying in the black long into the future and finally got to see how the design elements shift as you near the 1980s and 1990s. I had no idea that the city was evolving with the decades until I was finally able to play the game well and last longer without worrying about running out of money. In some ways, I guess that's like life. You miss out on the beauty around you if all you do is worry about money.
- 2007, 2K Games (Xbox 360, PC)
What can I say that hasn't been said a thousand times over the past 6 months? BioShock was the first game that I've played in a very long time that made me care about the setting and the story. And in many ways, the setting was the story. The underwater city of Rapture with all of its art-deco stylings (including the period music) was the most captivating videogame environment I've seen and although the gameplay wasn't really anything that ground-breaking, the writing, the voice-acting, and the artistic style of the game was truly beyond what every other game is offering to this point. But I also want to stress that the game was fun. It wasn't very hard, it was just the right length, and the story and constant discovery of new weapons upgrades and plasmids made the game one that I wanted to see through from start to finish. In fact, although I primarily played it multiple times because I wrote the guidebook for it, I'm looking forward to eventually buying a copy for my own personal use and playing it again.
*Favorite Moment: It's a tie between the initial opening sequence when you are entering Rapture for the first time and, of course, the climactic moment when you finally meet Andrew Ryan face-to-face. I honestly ran down the hall and woke Kristin up at midnight and made her come and watch that cinematic with me.
9) Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4
- 2002, Neversoft (PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, PC)
When I first got started in the business of writing strategy guides, I based my writing sample on the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater game. I then went on to write the book for every game in the series starting with THPS3 and including all of the various spin-offs. I still enjoy playing the series, but when I'm being perfectly honest I have to say that THPS4 was my favorite and probably the high-water mark for the franchise. What this game offered more of than all of the others was challenge. Completing goals in THPS4 was something to feel proud of. The game was still just about skating incredibly well-designed levels that had the right amount of objects in them without being over-crowded and the full addition of online support was a huge step forward (THPS3 had online support, but it was sketchy at best). Also, the game had introduced the Spine Transfer maneuver to help keep combos going, but still had a somewhat streamlined feel to it that the subsequent games miss. Sometimes less is more, as I recently said.
*Favorite Moment: One of my favorite moments with this game was also one of my favorite professional moments and that was getting in on the 8-person multiplayer sessions with the testers, producers, and even the President of Neversoft before this game came out. It was so much fun to get together online every week for a couple hours and play with the guys who literally made the game. Even if I did have to use some flimsy Gameshark keyboard to type my smack talk.
- 2000, Rare (Nintendo 64)
Best. Platformer. Ever. Gamers today are primarily sick of collect-a-thon games likes this, but even with all of the backtracking and constant collecting of Jigglies, Jingos, Musical Notes, and a thousand other widgets, this game was truly one for the ages. It had excellent writing, incredible level design, and absolute fantastic gameplay. Players took the role of Banjo (the bear) and Kazooie (the bird) and went on a fantastic quest to do, err, something. I forget. What I do remember though was that each character had a number of individual moves and then moves that they could perform in unison. There was also the ability to transform into various other things (like a washing machine) and that all of this craziness was not only challenging, but it was very, very funny and played very well.
*Favorite Moment: Co-authoring the guidebook for this game was my first time travelling to Nintendo in Redmond, WA (I used to live in North Carolina) and although we literally worked from 8am till 10pm every single day for two weeks, the time I had with my co-author, illustrator, and editor was fantastic. It was great having someone there to pass off the controller to after each level and after failed boss battle attempts. Sometimes I wish I had it still.
Honorable Mention: Project Gotham Racing 2, R.C. Pro-Am, Space Rangers 2, Metroid Prime, Age of Empires: Rise of Rome, NBA Street Volume 2, Hot Shots Golf 3, Frequency, Kid Icarus, Space Harrier, Thunderblade, Roller Coaster Tycoon, Worms, Life Force, Crystal Warriors, and Viva-Pinata.