Following on from Pike’s post I shall also provide some musings on the games I consider to be the very best. But unlike her, I shall actually deliver a list of five games! Just to briefly note that I’m not trying to say this is a definitive list of “best games ever” or something; just give that I’m most fond of and have a lot of personal regard for.
5) Final Fantasy X
Well, it’s always a toss-up between this and VII, but every time I play through FFX I find something else to love about it. This is, for my money, the best game Squaresoft/Square-Enix have ever put out. It is massive, richly detailed, I love all the characters in their own way (I didn’t used to like Yuna at all, but I’ve totally come to love and respect her as I really thought about her life and how she deals with everything), the battle system is immensely fun, and it’s got the best bonus content of any FF except, perhaps, XII, but then I don’t like XII so I’ve not seen much of that!
I think most of all I love it because it’s so beautiful. Not in the purest sense of eye-melting graphics, but in the aesthetic sense. Not too many games have a South-east Asian style setting anyway, but FFX feels so hot and tropical, is so colorful, so thoroughly alive in every scene, that I can’t help but get completely sucked in. And this is not mentioning the soundtrack; I listen to this and I am transported to Spira, feeling the heat and the water, it’s so wonderful.
X-2 is great as well, I don’t care what anyone says.
Ah, X-Com. You’ve heard Pike talk about this lately, and just think about what that means for a moment. A game that’s nearing 20 is more compelling to a new player than almost anything contemporary. Just so! X-Com is vast, ridiculous in scope, encompassing a global geostrategic component, base building, research, economic management, manufacturing, and of course the insanely deep, detailed, addictive tactical combat against the alien menace. Why so good? Like any classic, because it’s immersive. It sucks you in. You are the Commander, you have to simultaneously care about your troops and deal with it when they die in droves. You have to juggle a number of competing concerns, and the aliens will usually throw a wrench into your plans. It might be an isometric pixelfest today, but it’s still more engrossing, and often more terrifying, than anything that has come since.
X-Com came out in 1994 and the game has probably never been improved upon. I own four separate copies (Along with two copies of TFTD and a copy of Apocalypse). I really can’t recommend it strongly enough to anyone who hasn’t played it. This is why we got into gaming: Experiences like this are what it’s all about.
3) Deus Ex
Games like to talk about having multiple and diverse solutions. They rarely do – This one does, and oh man does it ever show how short the rest of the industry falls in that regard. You can be Snake, you can be Dook, you can be a l33t haXX0r and turn the enemy’s guns and robots against them, all kinds of stuff. And all backed up by two separate, synergistic methods of advancement, namely experience points on one hand and nano-augmentation on the other. All wrapped up in the most delightful dystopia I’ve had the pleasure of setting foot in, reveling in every conspiracy theory you can imagine (Except birthers, because that didn’t exist in 1999, obviously).
Yes, the graphics have aged badly and yes, the gunplay is a bit clunky, and yes, it has voice acting that can veer right into the comical. Not a single one of those things matter, because this game is how you make games, and the few flaws it has are completely overshadowed by the vastness of scale and ambition contained here.
2) Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
There’s no shortage of 4x games around, but if you’re listing the best, you’re probably going to talk about either Civilization or SMAC. There is a reason for this. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is the 4X game par excellence, the apex of the genre, not matched before or since. What makes it so great, I hear you ask? Where to begin. Name an aspect of videogames and SMAC does it brilliantly or better. The implementation of the gameplay, the mechanics, all of that stuff, is essentially unimpeachable. There is little realistic way to say it could be better except, perhaps, to say there could be more of it. What elevates SMAC from merely a brilliant game to an all-time classic and a brilliant experience is the atmosphere.
This game has quotes from Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Marx, all kinds of stuff. And these quotes are usually the less impressive ones. The really impressive quotes are the ones written for the game’s various faction leaders. Every time you research a tech you get a quote from someone, every time you build a wonder, and the first time you build any given building. The end result? A 4x game with stronger, more detailed characters, who undergo more evolution, than the best RPG. As things progress their opinions change; compare these two quotes from Sister Miriam Godwinson, leader of the Lord’s Believers faction.
“The righteous need not cower before the drumbeat of human progress. Though the song of yesterday fades into the challenge of tomorrow, God still watches and judges us. Evil lurks in the datalinks as it lurked in the streets of yesteryear. But it was never the streets that were evil.”
“And what of the immortal soul in such transactions? Can this machine transmit and reattach it as well? Or is it lost forever, leaving a soulless body to wander the world in despair?”
The final enjoyable factor is that the game goes for the ‘high balance’ route. All factions can achieve a position of particular strength, often wildly divergent from each other, but they can all become immensely powerful. When you can wipe out continents you really feel like you’re in charge of a future society, not to mention gives a palpable sense of reward for building up your empire. It was an excellent design decision which goes somewhat unnoticed, but contributes a lot to the game.
1) Suikoden II
So there’s some predictable classics on this list. Nobody is surprised to see X-Com or SMAC on a “Top games list”. But what’s this? Soo-wee-ko-den? What’s that? It’s a Playstation JRPG. It’s the best game I’ve ever played.
Suikoden, now up to entry V (All are exceptional except for IV), is a game where you lead an army. You generally start out on the side of an empire, and the corruption of it is soon revealed. Willingly or not you are caught up in a revolution or war to oppose it, and end up being the leader of the army. Yes, as a JRPG it means teenagers end up leading tens of thousands of troops. Yes, it has essentially silent protagonists, which is usually an immense pet peeve of mine. No, there is essentially no way to diverge from the prescribed plot (Though there are more chances to do so in SII than in any other JRPG I can call to mind). And yet here it is, number one on my list, a game I replayed around Christmas and loved as much as ever.
It’s a little hard to really explain what I love about this game, but that’s sort of the point of this post, so I’ll do my best. It has charm. It has grandeur, but it keeps things believable. You’re not saving the world from an ancient evil that has recently awoken, you’re fighting for your country, usually by fighting on the side of your country’s historic enemies. And you fight people on the other side who believe in their country, or believe they have a duty to serve it at any rate, who are for the most part thoroughly human. Except Luca Blight, who is the only ‘Murderous lunatic’ villain I have ever seen who makes me feel anything other than derision.
There are 108 characters to recruit in each Suikoden, sometimes recurring from other games in the series. They all form part of an overarching story of the Suikoden world, a plot not yet all revealed, but one which is engrossing in the extreme. Every game has fascinating characters and locations, gorgeous visuals, and absolutely stunning music. Forget Nobuo Uematsu, forget Yasunori Mitsuda, Miki Higashino is an unsung genius. I don’t think anyone has ever made better videogame music than she has.