As you may have noticed since my 150th game review special, I ended up awarding passing grades far less often than middling or failing ones. It was to the point where I had gone at least two different months of this year without awarding a single one, causing me to promise to review at least one good game the following month. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why things turned out that way, though reviewing long-running series that took a few installments to finally get good probably had something to do with it (the Bubsy series was responsible for three failing grades by itself). Either way, we’ve finally reached the games I can straight-up recommend, so if you haven’t played them, seek them out.
13. Monster World IV
Monster World IV is the kind of sequel Wonder Boy in Monster World should have been. Coming across as a less-exciting version of its direct predecessor, it’s not terribly surprising that it’s not nearly as well-known. Monster World IV shedding the Wonder Boy title seemed to symbolically signpost to players that they were in for a radically different experience, and it certainly delivers, placing a big emphasis on platforming for the first time since the original game. However, Monster World IV is so much more refined that it honestly wouldn’t have felt out of place among the greatest platformers on the SNES. It probably still has a rightful claim as the greatest platformer on the Genesis/Mega Drive that didn’t star a certain blue, fleet of foot hedgehog.
In this respect, it’s a bit of a shame I couldn’t give it a higher score because it boasts some of the series’ greatest level design. However, its biggest problem is that it’s not consistently good; one development in particular deprives the experience of the complexity that defined it up until that point. Had it not done that, it would have gotten an 8/10 for sure. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a quality game, and certainly worth playing for fans and non-fans alike. It’s just a bit of a shame it had difficulty sticking the landing.
12. Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap
Ultimately, The Dragon’s Trap stands out as the best game in the Wonder Boy franchise’s initial run for one key reason: consistency. One could argue its level design isn’t nearly as intricate as that of Monster World IV, and I wouldn’t contest that. However, what it does manage to do is provide the medium with one of the first truly good Metroidvanias. It stands to this day as one of the few games from the 1980s that holds up reasonably well, which is aided by the fact that it was playing around with concepts that were truly forward-looking. In most games, monsters merely existed to kill and get experience points from. Here, the main character is turned into various monsters. Using the form’s unique abilities gave the game a Kirby-like feel a few years before said character was invented. I can definitely see why fans wanted to remake this game.
11. Pokémon Diamond and Pearl
Pokémon Diamond and Pearl are good games, but they also have the dubious honor of forming the first generation that was not a definable improvement over the one that preceded it. A lot of the problems people had with the series up until this point, from the HM move management to the level grinding, had been dialed up to eleven for these games. The latter was especially strange given that mainstream JRPGs had long since abandoned the practice by 2006. It was to the point where the generation’s updated third version, Platinum, spent most of its time downplaying these problems in favor of offering a more streamlined experience. Nonetheless, I can still say they’re better than the first two generations due to a combination of having better story beats and finally addressing the single biggest issue plaguing the series up until this point when it divided physical and special attacks individually. Nonetheless, despite their names, I would label them both diamonds in the rough.
10. Kirby’s Adventure
I’ve always thought of Kirby’s Adventure as the first game in the series. Even after learning of the existence of Kirby’s Dream Land, I still feel that the series truly began with Kirby’s Adventure because almost everything that made the series what it is originated in this installment. After Kirby’s Adventure introduced the iconic copy ability and provided King Dedede’s definitive characterization, Kirby’s Dream Land comes across as more of a rough draft for this game than a standalone experience. This installment is what allowed Masahiro Sakurai to grasp his true potential and become one of the medium’s all-time greats. Having been released in the final days of the NES’s lifespan, it provided the popular console with a fitting swansong.
9. King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow
Whenever a series goes on for a long enough time, you get fans debating over which installment should be considered the pinnacle. Series such as Mario, The Legend of Zelda, or Metal Gear all have several quality installments apiece, and which one is the best depends on who you ask. Then there’s King’s Quest. This is a series in which I have never heard anyone make a case for the pinnacle being anything other than King’s Quest VI. Sure, it didn’t sell as well as its direct predecessor, but almost anyone familiar with the series is going to say that King’s Quest VI is the only one that can be enjoyed at face value nowadays. Though it can still be rendered unwinnable, the puzzle solutions are sensible enough that the average player has a chance of completing it without a guide. Coupled with some legitimately great voice acting provided by top-tier Hollywood talent, and King’s Quest VI manages to be the step forward its predecessor tried and failed to be.
8. Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire
It was interesting seeing Gen III Pokémon finally get its dues because I was one of the few people who had been with the series since the beginning who always felt it to be an improvement over Gold and Silver. Sure, the amount of water routes one must traverse is a little much, but the sheer number of aesthetical and gameplay improvements they brought to the table makes up for their shortcomings. Really, most of the reason these games were hated was because they had no compatibility with any of the preceding generations. Once that stopped being an issue, people began looking at these games far more favorably. It took them awhile to get there, but better late than never, huh?
7. Pokémon Black and White
Despite the fact that I liked Ruby and Sapphire back when they were released, I lost interest in the series shortly thereafter. In my defense, there was a period of time in the 2000s in which it really wasn’t cool to like Pokémon. I eventually ended up playing Platinum to fill in the generation I had skipped, but Black and White were the games responsible for actually bringing me back into the series. I’m glad I gave them a chance because Gen V managed to reach a level of greatness previous sets of games didn’t achieve. With a story that deconstructs the premise of the series and one of the greatest love-to-hate villains out there, and Black and White are easily games I could recommend to those interested in getting into the series.
6. Super Mario Galaxy
You know how I mentioned earlier in the special that there were many old-school series in which a popular game was followed up with an experimental sequel only for the third to be a return to form and be hailed as one of the series’ hallmarks? I feel the year 2007 caused this phenomenon to occur for the second time in Nintendo’s signature franchise with the installments in question being Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. The last of these games definitely modeled itself after Super Mario 64, and Nintendo proved they can make lightning strike twice in the same place when they reinvented 3D platforming yet again and launched their mascot into a cosmos-spanning journey. Some niggling issues from Super Mario Sunshine remain such as the life system or certain terrible gimmicks getting way too much screentime, but they are much easier to manage this time around.
5. Marvel’s Spider-Man
2018 was a pretty good year for Spider-Man fans, wasn’t it? It’s easy to make the case that Marvel’s Spider-Man wouldn’t have existed without the success of Batman: Arkham Asylum. To that, I would counter that even if that’s true, I still feel Insomniac’s take on Marvel’s most famous character outshines it by virtue of taking the superhero genre and owning it. Just the fact that it doesn’t have any gimmicks comparable to the poorly-thought-out Spring Mushroom places it ahead of Super Mario Galaxy. More than anything, I appreciate Marvel’s Spider-Man not only for providing a fresh take on the character’s mythos, but also having the audacity to saddle players with a protagonist who doesn’t come across as a misplaced Dark-Age anti-hero like every other AAA title from the early-to-mid-2010s.
4. Super Mario Odyssey
Like Breath of the Wild before it, Super Mario Odyssey is proof positive that any gaming journalist who counts Nintendo out is destined to have egg on their face. It’s strange because, it does have a similar problem as Super Mario Sunshine in that it often forgoes quality for quantity. While the acquisition of each Power Star and Shine Sprite felt like an event, Super Mario Odyssey rewards a Power Moon for sitting on a park bench at one point (and this isn’t the only instance of something like this occurring – far from it). It is for that reason I couldn’t give it a 9/10 and feel that Breath of the Wild is the superior effort. That being said, it also has a much better grasp on what does and doesn’t work, which is the reason I feel it to be a better game than Super Mario Sunshine or Super Mario Galaxy. The gimmicks are much better implemented and being able to Capture enemies allows players to finally take advantage of the series’ unique bestiary for the first time since the first two Paper Mario installments. Even if it wasn’t enough to get a 9/10, I will say it currently dominates the 8/10 tier.