I have to admit that between the three colors I use, the green tiers are the ones for which my process of assigning grades is the least scientific. When I was developing my rating system, I wanted to make it clear to readers that a game really has to go the extra mile to earn an 8/10 or higher so as not to devalue the highest grades. Admittedly, it does come down to gut feelings to a greater extent than when I’m entertaining the idea of assigning a red or yellow score. For games I’ve awarded an 8/10, there might be a few minor issues present, but they’re easy to overlook in favor of appreciating what they do well. These are games you should give high priority should they end up on your backlog.
25. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Yes, the Call of Duty franchise, despite its massive success, is considered the video game equivalent of hair metal these days in that it’s difficult to admit to liking the series without having a bunch of people roll their eyes and comment on how uncool you are. The path the series ultimately went down is indeed worthy of the snark it receives, and it’s a shame because the original Modern Warfare has a lot more substance to it than one would think. Someone seeking this game out of morbid curiosity brought on by the series’ less-than-stellar reputation and expecting to see the typical jingoistic fare associated with the modern military shooter would be shocked to realize the narrative reads like a brutal deconstruction of the subgenre it singlehandedly invented. Spec Ops: The Line would try it years later, but the ultimate irony is that the effort was entirely redundant.
24. Papers, Please
Lucas Pope was formally a Naughty Dog employee, and if his debut solo effort is any indication, I’m led to believe they were holding him back. He managed to provide an experience far more polished and memorable than a majority of what his ex-colleagues would produce in the coming years after his departure. How did he accomplish this? With a game in which you play as a border inspector for a communist country, examining passports and entry documentation to determine whether the entrant can pass or not. It somehow manages to be a lot more fun and tense than it sounds, and it demonstrated that entertainment can enhance an artistic statement rather than stifle it. Indeed, the reason I can say it’s a more profound statement than anything Jonathan Blow has created (or anyone else who textures their games in a similar fashion) is because I feel Mr. Pope went into his game knowing exactly the kind of experience he wished to provide. He drew on his own personal experiences to craft an artistic game that is equal parts personable and relatable, allowing a greater number of people to appreciate its nuances.
23. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Uncharted 2 was the very first game of Naughty Dog’s I had played, and I was summarily amazed at the attention to detail that went into crafting the environments. I had also never played a game with such effort put into its writing, and I found myself agreeing with the critics who gave it a perfect score back in 2009. These days, after having experienced other story-heavy games, I realized that it’s not quite the top-tier material I originally thought it was. Regardless, I feel this game reigns supreme over its sequels and first spiritual successor because I feel it benefited from the circumstances surrounding its creation. The original Uncharted met with a warm reception, but it was not a unanimous hit with critics, meaning that Naughty Dog had to step up their game to remain relevant in the new console generation. This means that they had to take the criticism lodged toward Uncharted to heart – they made their protagonist more altruistic, the level design and controls were better overall, and it managed to forge an identity outside of “Indiana Jones, except not”.
While I wouldn’t be quick to say that Uncharted 2 is one of the greatest games ever made, I think even those not onboard with Naughty Dog’s style-over-substance ethos would enjoy this game, as there’s a lot to like about it, and it’s one of the few times they actually managed to stick the landing reasonably well.
22. BioShock: Infinite
Similar to the case with Uncharted 2, I used to believe that Ken Levine was one of the medium’s greatest storytellers. Though I think he has a leg up on the Naughty Dog writing staff, I feel he has his own problems that prevent him from reaching his true potential. His primary weakness is that his stories culminate with a huge reveal, and he seems to have trouble deciding what to do afterwards, leading to weak endgames. BioShock: Infinite manages to be my favorite game between it, System Shock 2, and BioShock because this was the only game in which he was able to keep that weakness in check. Granted, he accomplished this without directly addressing it, but it worked out in the end. Indeed, BioShock: Infinite is a great change of pace from the aforementioned games with its Half-Life-esque level design, greater level of interaction between characters, and a storyline that takes place in a time period not often utilized by video games. Though one could make a pretty strong case that its story doesn’t benefit from being in a video game, it’s still intriguing enough to make players want to see how it will unfold without dragging on for a needlessly long time as was the case with many of its contemporaries.
21. Bravely Default
After several years of disappointing, big-budget releases, Bravely Default was the return to form Square desperately needed with many people jokingly, though perhaps not disingenuously, considering it the greatest Final Fantasy game in years. Not only does the familiar turn-based gameplay make a return, it has been vastly improved thanks to its ingenious BP mechanic wherein you and your opponents can act multiple times per round. It succeeds where Final Fantasy VI didn’t in that boss battles throughout the entire game will require you to drum up advanced strategies that take full advantage of the revamped combat system. Even better, it manages to address many of the criticisms frequently lodged against the genre as a whole by making level grinding a non-issue while also allowing you to turn off random encounters entirely should you so choose. It does suffer from Square’s trademark, post-fifth generation tendency wherein they throw out a crazy idea that decreases the experience’s overall quality around the last third, but I feel it’s ultimately not a deal breaker.
20. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
This game in its original Game Boy Advance incarnation was never released worldwide, so I can imagine that the developers were stunned when the 2005 DS rerelease became a sleeper hit in the West to the point where demand far exceeded supply. In any event, the debut Ace Attorney installment is a solid effort that to this day stands out as one of the most unique experiences the medium has to offer. Between an excellent cast of characters and a story that does a good job satirizing the Japanese legal system without turning the cast into living plot devices, it succeeded where The Colonel’s Bequest ultimately fell short. It’s in the same category as Papers, Please in that the developers took a premise that seems like it would make for a boring game, and managed to conceive a premise far more compelling than a majority of what the AAA industry could come up with.
19. Final Fantasy V
Among Western fans, it’s unusual to rate this particular installment above its successor. However, in Japan, the sentiment was reversed in that Final Fantasy VI was considered a step down. On this matter, I find myself siding with the Japanese fans, as I believe Final Fantasy V to be the stronger effort by far thanks to its job system, which is a massive improvement over the one that featured in Final Fantasy III. Furthermore, though I will yield that the story lacks the same level of ambition as Final Fantasy IV or Final Fantasy VI, I also believe that the people who dismiss it outright as silly ultimately fail to give it enough credit. Digging beneath the surface reveals it to be a surprisingly effective foil to its direct predecessor, and there are many story beats that wind up embracing the medium’s unique properties while being surprisingly subversive in regard to the series’ own tropes.
18. Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
With its admittedly erratic pacing when it comes to exploring Dark Aether at first, Metroid Prime 2 is indeed the weakest game in Retro’s Metroid Prime trilogy. It still manages to outshine certain other series at their best. I have hard time believing that Retro was forced to rush 70% of the game in just a few months in order for it to make 2004’s Christmas season because it absolutely does not show in the final product. Sure, there were a few unpolished and poorly thought-out ideas here and there, but I’ve also seen a lot worse from teams that had no such excuse.
17. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
I began to realize when typing up this list that part of what I find so fascinating about the Metal Gear franchise is that it somehow manages to pull off a lot of things that by all accounts I should find insufferable and make them work. The narrative of Metal Gear Solid 2 could be seen as an affront on people who enjoy video games, yet somehow, it comes across as more introspective than condescending as was the case when many later artists tried it. The themes covered in this game would show up in many 2010s efforts, yet I also believe that no one has come close to surpassing this game in what it tries to do. What helps is that, for all of the scorn shown by the writing staff, the game is very well designed, being a major improvement over Metal Gear Solid with its improved control scheme and ability to aim weapons from a first-person perspective. If nothing else, Metal Gear Solid 2, is easier to accept than, say, Spec Ops: The Line or The Stanley Parable because not unlike the case with Takeshi Kitano and his game, the joke was ultimately on Mr. Kojima. It’s been argued that he tried to sabotage his own series by making his audience so mad that they would abandon the series. If that was true, he failed miserably.
16. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
A Link to the Past stands out to me as the best 2D installment in the franchise by virtue of grasping a certain something later ones didn’t – however more polish they may have had. Maybe it was the intriguing Dark World mechanic. Perhaps it was by including more dungeons than in almost any other game in the series. Some fans were dissatisfied with the more linear design of later installments, and I think a huge benefit to this game’s reputation is that it provides an excellent compromise, starting off linear only to open up once you obtain a certain upgrade. Though I also believe that making the 3D leap allowed the series to achieve a level of greatness it couldn’t before, A Link to the Past is a classic that has absolutely stood the test of time – even when accounting for the fact that in 1991, it didn’t really have anything in the way of fierce competition.
15. Super Metroid
Like A Link to the Past, Super Metroid is a solid effort that manages to outshine later 2D installments by grasping something they couldn’t. Unlike A Link to the Past, Super Metroid could be considered a do-over of the original Metroid, though it was a highly appreciated one, as the developers systematically addressed every issue I had with it. In hindsight, I’m astounded how much of an improvement this game manages to be over its predecessors. Though it’s been adamantly argued that graphics don’t make the game, in this particular case, they were essential in bringing the environments to life. However admirable such an endeavor was in 1986, it was clear that, similar to Metal Gear, the technology needed to catch up with the forward-looking developers before the series had a chance to truly shine.
Originally reviewed on: December 28, 2014
Earthbound was one of the first victims of the video game critics’ propensity to base their reviews off of the first few hours of their playthroughs. To be fair, in this era in gaming, it was easy to count on good games to stay good and bad ones to be bad right away. However, this is one of the earliest console games in which that approach would cause one to draw an incorrect conclusion of the work’s overall quality. On the surface, it would appear to be an ordinary JRPG with a simplistic art style, but actually delving into the game reveals that, like a book or film, it needs to be completed before one could judge it properly. Sadly, even decades later, they made no strives to improve upon this weakness, allowing developers to get good reviews as long as they placed all of their best ideas in the first third.
Whatever the case may be, I can safely say that between all of the games in the trilogy, Earthbound stands out as the best one by far. Earthbound Beginnings before it and Mother 3 after it are both completely tied to the era in which they were created with the former being a dated JRPG and the latter reveling in the clichés of the mid/late-2000s speculative fiction zeitgeist. Earthbound has none of those problems; with its parodic nature and surrealist tendencies, it’s the kind of game that may as well have been made yesterday. Despite featuring an obnoxious secondary villain, it’s a delight to play, and with the power of hindsight, it became clear that the critics let a classic fall by the wayside. These days, it’s rightly considered one finest offerings of its console generation.
13. Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War
This was the last game Gunpei Yokoi produced before he left Nintendo, and it was an excellent parting gift. Like Super Metroid and A Link to the Past before it, Genealogy of the Holy War took a very forward-looking franchise that hadn’t yet found its stride and proceeded to systematically weed out all of the factors holding it back, leading to the creation of something that continues to be highly regarded to this day. If it had stopped there, it would’ve been impressive on its own, but then the writers proceeded to use their franchise’s past accomplishments as a springboard to explore new ideas. The result is one of the medium’s most intriguing narratives, brutally deconstructing the premise of the series. What makes this particular one stand out is that the game switches gears around the halfway point by presenting a scenario similar to Mystery of the Emblem, and taking it in a more mature direction that clearly took the lessons learned from the deconstruction. Despite not originally receiving a localization, this game is popular among Western fans. Play it, and you’ll realize why many consider this installment the series’ pinnacle.