If it’s one thing I’ve observed over the years, it’s that every critic or outlet seems to have a different attitude concerning the highest grade on their scale. Some hand them out like penny candy while others outright refuse to ever assign a 10/10 on the basis that there is no perfect work. Personally, I feel the former approach devalues the grading scale to the point of inanity. After all, if you hand out too many top grades, it doesn’t leave much in the way of middle ground; you either award a perfect score or you don’t. Though I can see where the people bearing the opposite mentality come from, I feel refusing to assign the highest grade on your scale denotes a lack of respect for the medium, and perfection is such nebulous concept to begin with. Naturally, my own approach is between the two extremes. I can and will award a 10/10, but I don’t award it to just any game. Indeed, one of my rules is that I can only award the grade once per franchise – this includes spinoffs. Therefore, I tend to think very carefully whenever I’m confronted with a masterful game whether or not it deserves such an accolade. Going the extra mile isn’t enough; I have to be convinced that these are once-in-a-lifetime achievements that will hold up in the coming years. So without further ado, let’s bring the list to a close with five games I feel managed to truly earn that top honor.
5. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
It’s a shame that Metroid Prime 3 often gets shunned in favor of the original because even coming off of two installments with similar gameplay and lacking the “wow” factor of Retro’s 2002 debut, it still has a lot to offer. Similar to the case with Metroid Fusion, I can sort of understand why because in all honesty, Metroid Prime 3 isn’t quite what I would call a particularly good Metroidvania. It obviously shares many similar traits, being an installment of the series that partially named the subgenre, but in practice, it’s more of a straight-up action game. In contrast to the slow, methodical Metroid Prime, Metroid Prime 3 includes sequences that will make you think on your feet to have any chance of surviving, and like its direct predecessor, there is no shortage of challenging boss fights. However, its biggest innovation, and the reason why I can say it reigns supreme over anything else in the franchise, concerns its novel control scheme. The Wii Remote was a sophisticated IR pointer – especially for its time – and that so few good games utilized it in such a fashion was a wasted opportunity. More than anything, Metroid Prime 3 does away with the few minor nuances plaguing its two predecessors while coming up with several new, good ideas to give this installment its own identity despite retaining its recognizable gameplay. It uses its previous canon to a great effect, creating something grander in scale that serves as the perfect conclusion to a solid trilogy.
4. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
People may debate on the quality of Hideo Kojima’s writing, but he is one of the best designers in the medium, and one advantage I feel he has over his peers is that he does learn from his mistakes. He will always tease his audience, but when he has been informed that something isn’t working, he will go back on it. This brings us to the subject of Metal Gear Solid 3. Metal Gear Solid 2 was the result of the director having been given total creative control of a project, and though the developments made for interesting talking pieces, many of them were failed ideas that bordered on self-indulgence (or were outright self-indulgent depending on the person you ask).
Metal Gear Solid 3 took the unbridled ambition of Metal Gear Solid 2 and focused it to the point where the best ideas got to shine while completely mitigating the (minor) damage done by the bad ideas. I wouldn’t be quick to label it among the best video game stories, but Mr. Kojima did an excellent job melding the 1960s Cold War era with his own trademark stylistic flair. This is all while providing gameplay that continued to set the bar higher for the series with its stellar level design and creative boss battles. Between all of the installments in the series, I think it strikes the best balance between the stealth-based gameplay of the original games and the action-oriented direction towards which the series was drifting. Topped off with one of the most memorable endings in the medium’s history, and you’ve got a classic game that stands to this day as one of the decade’s finest offerings.
In June of 2015, independent game designer Jonathan Blow stated in part of an interview that “video games are terrible for telling stories”, pointing out that the narrative tends to break gameplay and mechanics with non-interactive cutscenes and that “pretty much sucks”. Three months later, Undertale was released, thus proving beyond any reasonable doubt that the universe has an excellent sense of comedic timing.
Part of the reason I and many others find the medium so intriguing is because for the longest time, it didn’t play by anyone else’s rules. Sure, the overall art style of Metroid was heavily inspired by the Alien franchise and the Metal Gear franchise wore its Escape from New York influences on its sleeve, yet those artists went in entirely different directions with those motifs, crafting new experiences. This started changing in the 2000s when creators made their Hollywood influences more overt, opting to tell stories through non-interactive cutscenes. If it’s one point that I will concede to Mr. Blow, it’s that this ultimately proved to be a dead-end revolution. By trying to tell stories through cutscenes, the narrative often clashed with the gameplay, cheapening both. Furthermore, considering all we’ve managed to accomplish with films, attempting to directly compete with them would be a competition between two severely mismatched opponents. In the 2010s, the indie scene attempted to provide a solution in the form of environmental narrative games (a.k.a. walking simulators), but in practice, it too came across as a defeated revolution because they solved the problem in way that failed to directly address the core issue. They took after the zeitgeist of artistically driven works (or more accurately, the popular perception of what they constitute) by expelling all notions of fun or engagement from their games. In both cases, games went from marching to the beat of their own drum to desperately trying to land a seat at the cool kids’ table, and the results were rather embarrassing to watch.
This all changed with the release of Undertale. Like Shigesato Itoi before him, Toby Fox clearly believed in the medium’s storytelling potential as he crafted his work. It goes beyond merely having good writing; Undertale is a game that wholeheartedly embraces the medium’s quirks and oddities rather than pushing them away. The result is an avant-garde narrative that couldn’t possibly have worked in a non-interactive medium and stands as one of the decade’s most significant works. Even better, certain developments in the game actively challenge the idea that a good story needs to be dark and cynical, lending a degree of introspection that mentality rarely receives. I find it uplifting that one of the greatest storytelling experiences the medium has to offer wasn’t inspired by a book or film, but another video game. Though Earthbound itself remains a classic, I can safely say this is a case where the student surpassed the master.
2. Planescape: Torment
The main reason I tend to be tough on story-heavy games isn’t because I think it’s an inherently bad idea; it’s because I know that anyone attempting to create one is going to have Planescape: Torment as a competitor. This game demonstrates that if you’re going to sink a majority of your resources into story development, it can’t settle for being slightly better than what is commonly considered average for a AAA effort; it needs to be genuinely good. And that’s exactly what Chris Avellone and his team at Black Isle Studios accomplished.
Though it would probably be more accurate to describe Planescape: Torment as an interactive novel than a computer RPG, it doesn’t matter; the writing intelligently deconstructs many standard fantasy and video game conventions, putting many acclaimed print novels to shame in terms of creativity. Even with its truly impressive 800,000 word count, it still benefits from being in a game, as it’s the player’s will that shapes the narrative. With so many good things to say about it, Planescape: Torment is my personal pick for the best game of the nineties – for that matter, it could be considered one of the greatest achievements of the nineties. Even given the direction in which the medium was heading, it comes across as an incredibly forward-looking experience capable of impressing anyone willing to give it the time of day.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
I feel how Majora’s Mask was created is a testament to the level of talent Nintendo possesses. If any other team attempted to create a game heavily drawing from their latest hit’s asset, it would’ve come across as a particularly lazy token sequel. When Shigeru Miyamoto let Eiji Aonuma do just that, it resulted in what can only be described as a true masterpiece.
I felt it appropriate to make Majora’s Mask the subject of my one-hundredth review because it remains to this day one of my favorite games, and the previous four entries on this list can stand proud alongside it. It rises above every other game in the Zelda franchise, which is no mean feat, and considering the unique circumstances surrounding its creation, I doubt another game like it will arise again. This isn’t to say that it hasn’t been surpassed, but anyone wishing to do so would only succeed by the skin of their teeth. A lot of fans praise Link’s Awakening for its unique scenario, but I believe it wasn’t until this installment that Yoshiaki Koizumi’s potential as a storyteller was fully realized. The team behind this game clearly had a lot of respect for their audience, as this is one of the most experimental, challenging mainstream releases ever issued. Their hard work paid off, for though they had the daunting task of creating a follow up to the universally beloved Ocarina of Time, they managed to do the impossible by surpassing it a mere two years later. It would take some time for enthusiasts themselves to realize it, but once they did, they gave Majora’s Mask the credit it deserved by rightfully naming it one of the greatest games of the 2000s.