Now that the bad/middling games are out of the way, we can finally start talking about the ones I can actually recommend. This has been a great year for me personally because I managed to write three reviews that were over 10,000 words long. The best part? They’re all of games I like. Whereas before, my longest review was that of The Last of Us, I can now safely say that anyone who believes it’s easier to be negative than positive clearly isn’t trying hard enough.
Rakuen may fall in that strange indie trap of starting off strong only to begin truncating around the halfway point, but Ms. Shigihara managed to succeed in ways few other game creators have. That is, she managed to craft a melancholic narrative without ever really going overboard. In this medium, whenever somebody attempts to do this, ninety percent of the time, it ends up like Mother 3 wherein the protagonist is constantly beaten down to the point where you eventually stop caring. Rakuen actually takes a few steps back and gives its characters a break every now and again, ensuring the audience empathy is constant throughout. With the benefit of having seen quite a few classic films between the time I reviewed Rakuen and now, I can even say the premise brings to mind a Kurosawa work. Anyone familiar with his filmography who has also played this game can guess what it is |(Ikiru)|. Though rough around the edges, Rakuen stands out as a minimalistic triumph that deserves your time.
18. Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3
Of any game released on the original Game Boy, Wario Land has probably held up the best by virtue of being simple, yet well executed. I can certainly say that, spinoff or not, it is easily the best game in the Super Mario Land trilogy by virtue of having forged its own identity. It offered an experience that was identifiably crafted from the Mario template, yet twisted to the point of nigh unrecognizability. Even better, because its sequels would go in entirely new directions, being puzzle-platformers, Wario Land manages to stand on its own merits, and the mechanics that would retroactively seem odd contribute to its charm rather than disallow newcomers from trying it.
17. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
The Minish Cap was another chapter in what would be a reoccurring narrative for the franchise. After the series’ official 3D leap, any subsequent 2D installment (or 3D installment using a top-down view) would be stuck in the shadow of A Link to the Past. However, that doesn’t mean these games were bad – far from it. In fact, a more optimistic interpretation of The Minish Cap is that it represented how far handheld games had come since the Game Boy days. Suddenly handheld games were attempting to be good in their own right rather than settle for being lesser versions of console experiences.
16. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Spirit Tracks is a textbook example of what I like to call a mulligan game. That is, the creators took a novel game with major execution issues only for them to do an excellent job mitigating or excising said execution issues. Indeed, while the Temple of the Ocean King is the single worst dungeon in the series, the development team managed to save face with the Tower of the Gods, one of the stronger dungeons in the series. Now, Spirit Tracks has its own share of problems, most notably forcing players to navigate a train carefully under the threat of instant death should they fail, but it is a significant improvement over Phantom Hourglass. Having Zelda play a proactive role was the moment every fan had been waiting for, and her teaming up with Link forms the basis of some of the most creative puzzles in the series. It is for the sheer amount of ambition that I feel Spirit Tracks edges out The Minish Cap.
15. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations
There was a day in which I would’ve considered Trials and Tribulations the best game in the series, but it has long since passed. When I played this game for the first time, I could tell there was more effort put into the first two episodes than the entirety of Justice for All. However, there’s no getting around that its antagonist, Godot, weighs the experience down. He certainly isn’t a deal-breaker by any means, but he does remind me a bit of Ghirahim in that as a villain, he’s ultimately more flash than substance. Writers of later games would learn how to make these kinds of characters work far more effectively, but I still have to say that Trials and Tribulations is good in spite of Godot rather than because of him.
14. BioShock Infinite
Originally reviewed on: March 26, 2015
BioShock Infinite, despite forgoing any significant notion of player choice, is easily Ken Levine’s best game so far simply by virtue of fully embracing the direction in which his work was heading. While BioShock was still hampered by the pseudo-RPG elements present in System Shock 2, BioShock Infinite threw up its hands and became a full-blown action game, leading to an overall more focused experience. When I originally reviewed BioShock Infinite, I gave it a 9/10, believing it to be a masterpiece. As time went on, I reduced it to an 8/10. Finally, when I reviewed it a second time earlier this year, I decided it deserves a 7/10 instead. This is because when it comes to video game storytelling, BioShock Infinite is merely pretty good. While I still feel it was ahead of most of its contemporaries such as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag or The Last of Us, it still ultimately had nothing on the likes of Virtue’s Last Reward or Papers, Please, which used the medium’s unique properties far more effectively.
13. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies
Dual Destinies managed to pull off the impossible by being an installment that was a return to form after the tepid Apollo Justice while also experimenting with the canon in truly remarkable ways. What I admire about how the writers handle the most controversial plot points of Apollo Justice is that they don’t sweep them under the rug; they directly addressed them, which went a long way in allowing even the most skeptical fans to accept them. Because a significant chunk of Dual Destinies is spent backpedaling from Apollo Justice, the narrative does suffer somewhat, being unfocused at times. Even if its finale isn’t quite as memorable as “Bridge to the Turnabout”, Dual Destinies manages to be an overall better game with a mind-bending reveal that turns a second playthrough into a completely different experience.
12. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
A Link Between Worlds is the breath of fresh air gaming desperately needed in 2013. As the medium strayed further and further from what made it so appealing in the first place, A Link Between Worlds, an unapologetic game, gracelessly crashed onto the scene and it was a beautiful sight to behold. It captures what made the original The Legend of Zelda so enjoyable and combines it with the best aspects of A Link to the Past. The result is something that is equal parts recognizable and different. The only downside is that there’s no natural difficulty curve, though unlike Super Mario Land 2, you don’t have to worry about a major difficulty spike in the final dungeon.
11. Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus was a watershed moment for gaming in that it was one the earliest instances in which people seriously considered the medium as a legitimate artistic movement. Though art games certainly existed before 2005, Fumito Ueda succeeded in a way his predecessors didn’t by selling a larger audience on the idea. This game also earned something of an “original and still the best” title in that many of the games it directly or indirectly inspired in the coming years from Braid to Limbo couldn’t successfully capture what made it so good. The storytelling is ambiguous, yet there are just enough concreate details for you to begin formulating your own theories. It was not the result of its creator throwing random words or visuals at the wall and telling audiences to make sense of them. Though I couldn’t quite count it among my absolute favorites, there’s no denying that it’s a classic game through and through.
10. Super Mario 64
Here it is, the game I made the subject of my 150th review! Though Shadow of the Colossus is arguably a bolder game than Super Mario 64, I feel the latter edges it out because it has a bit more variety to it. I’m still astounded how well it has held up over the years given that the same couldn’t be said of the original Super Mario Bros. I think it’s because while Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, and Yoshiaki Koizumi were exploring uncharted territory, they still had the modern sensibilities they developed in the latter parts of the 2D era to help them along while in 1985, they hadn’t yet been fully formed. Either way, I can safely say that if you’re interested in checking out the Mario franchise, starting with its first 3D installment would be a great idea.
9. Super Mario Bros. 3
Hey, I actually awarded an eighties game a passing grade. Took long enough, didn’t it? Anyway, thinking about how I would rank Super Mario Bros. 3 compared to Super Mario 64 wound up being extraordinarily difficult. It’s easy for me to say now that Super Mario 64 is no longer the best 3D installment, yet it belonged in a class of its own in 1996. Does knowing that superior sequels exist mean that it deserves to rank higher than Super Mario Bros. 3, which, along with Super Mario World, was the pinnacle of the franchise’s 2D installments? That was the question I asked myself when made to rank these games, and I still don’t have a straight answer. While this particular contest should end in a draw, I feel Super Mario Bros. 3 has a very slight edge because it was one of the hallmarks of 2D platforming in general whereas Super Mario 64 is, by comparison, a prototype of 3D gaming – albeit one that somehow manages to be more fun than many later efforts.
8. Super Mario World
Unlike the above situation, I knew where I stood when it came to pitting Super Mario World against Super Mario Bros. 3. Because I judge games based off of their single-player campaigns, Super Mario World wins by virtue of giving solo players a vast world to explore. By having the entire game take place in one homogeneous world, you really get a sense of how vast Dinosaur Land truly is, and the secret exits lent the game a vibe similar to that of The Legend of Zelda. Similar to the case with Zelda and A Link to the Past, no later sidescrolling Mario installment successfully recreated what made Super Mario World such an enduring classic. It may have been gotten lost in the Sonic the Hedgehog hype, but its strong following speaks for itself. Guess it’s more accurate to say that Genesis couldn’t what Nintendid.
7. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
It’s incredible to think that there was a moment in which The Wind Waker was thought of as a kiddy game. It was a lot like how the American mainstream news outlets back in the fifties pushed the “rock and roll is the devil’s music” narrative – in historical terms, both backlashes were a flash in the pan. Nowadays, The Wind Waker is the installment many people chose in order to prove they’re a true fan of the series. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s my personal favorite, there’s no denying that, shaky beginning and high amounts of sailing notwithstanding, The Wind Waker is a delightful game that, much like Super Mario World above, well and truly earned its vindication.
6. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice
Spirit of Justice is, to me, unequivocally the best game in the mainline Ace Attorney series so far. It introduces a very basic concept in the form of its divination séances before exploring the idea in many creative ways. In fact, I would have to say it ties into what I believe is Motohide Eshiro and Takeshi Yamazaki’s biggest advantage over Shu Takumi; while they arguably don’t pitch as many ideas as their predecessor, they manage to flesh out the ones they do pitch to a far greater extent. By the end of the game, you get a sense of how people in the country of Khura’in live and how they accept the extraordinary as a simple fact of life. On top of this, the narrative allows Phoenix and Apollo to develop as characters without interfering with each other’s arcs, which is a minor problem I had with Dual Destinies. If you intend to play through the entire series, it will be worth suffering through the weaker episodes just to make it to this installment.