Here is my ranked list of the top 20 greatest games of all time. Some the titles that are only a few years old are here provisionally, and I'll have to see if I still feel the same way about them as the years pass.
Left 4 Dead 2 is the ultimate zombie-apocalypse first person shooter. Gritty and violent, it was banned in several countries. The game takes place in the deep south, as four survivors of a viral zombie outbreak fight their way across the landscape trying to find safety. Its "versus mode" is the best online 4v4 ever created. It rewards skill and team-play equally, and harshly punishes those who cannot work together as a unit -- on both the human and zombie sides. The campaign is also brilliantly crafted as a bot-assisted single player game, or can be played cooperatively with up to three friends. Both the campaign and online experience are almost infinitely replayable. That pushes the game into #1 in my top twenty, as my favorite video game of all time.
The two Left 4 Dead games were released fairly close together, and L4D2 was updated to include the entire L4D1 game within it. It doesn't make sense to review them separately since they are pretty fused at this point. L4D2 did fix some of the mechanical shortcomings in the first game, and perfected the versus mode. Hopefully we will soon see the third installment in the series. The wait is getting painful, but I understand the hesitance on Valve's part. Left 4 Dead 2 is the best video game of all time, and will be a nearly impossible act to follow.
You are a space marine fighting on the home planet of the Strogg, a species hostile to Earth. Gathering powerful weapons and ammo you fight your way through progressively more difficult levels, blasting the enemy into bloody chunks. True to its id heritage, Quake II pulls no punches in its violent depictions and was banned in Germany until 2011. Quake II's campaign delivered many playthroughs and hours of fun and adventure. It didn't draw me in to its world the same way id's DOOM titles had, but it was still a fantastic single-player experience. Quake 2 was the first major title that I played on 3D graphics acceleration hardware. You can read more about that on my 1997 hardware page.
The real magic of Quake 2, and where I would log thousands of hours, was in online play. It has the best multiplayer deathmatch of all time, and some of the best server mods ever created. Just writing this makes me want to play some Lithium II. Nothing since has matched the pace and excitement the game, not even its successors in the series. I played Quake 2 regularly for about six years, the first three of which I played it with a religious fervor. My hours-estimate for this game is low, if anything. My only regret with Quake 2 is that I played so much of it that I didn't play other big games of the era like Unreal Tournament.
Command and Conquer Generals is a near-future, overhead realtime strategy game with three factions vying for global dominance: The United States, China, and the Global Liberation Army (middle-eastern terrorists). Its universe is unrelated to the rest of the C&C library, and is the first to use a 3D engine. The game's campaign is challenging and fun, and is highly replayable. The Zero Hour expansion pack, also released in 2003, added more campaign missions, new units, and another game mode called the General's Challenge. The game's "skirmish" mode features dozens of maps for customizable battles. Between the maps, factions, and different generals to choose from, skirmish mode offers infinite replayability. I spent most of my hours in this game playing skirmish maps. Generals also has one of the best game soundtracks of all time.
Generals is not only the high point of the C&C series, but for me it was the pinnacle of the RTS genre. It was the last quasi-realistic RTS before this entire class of games went the way of cartoonish robots and guys in mech-suits. The game was banned in China, and also in Germany as "media harmful to young people." Although the game had a fairly active online community, I only played online a few times. I found that online matches often ended too quickly to be a satisfying gaming experience. I much preferred squaring off against computer opponents where matches could go long enough to construct larger, more filled-out bases. I enjoyed the feeling of reaching a point in a match where I knew I was going to win, and then being able to pull back and build up an overwhelming force to take in for a decisive victory.
BF3 is set during a 2014 war between Russia and the United States provoked by Iranian terrorists (sales of the game are banned Iran.) With real-world air and ground vehicles, hundreds of realistic weapons, a huge array of well designed maps, 64 player matches, and phenomenal sound design, the genre has not seen its equal since. It's the best multiplayer, modern-military FPS I've ever played.
The first time I loaded into a Battlefield 3 server, I crested a small hill and an enemy Venom helicopter was circling, with door-mounted miniguns ablaze, and I ran back toward cover. Seconds later something hit the enemy helicopter. It exploded with an incredible sound that reverberated in my headphones and mixed with that of fighter jets roaring overhead, locked in a dogfight. Looking up, I could see one of them deploying countermeasures. "This is going to be awesome," was the only thought that went through my mind. And it was.
Grand Theft Auto V is a gangster adventure, and exercise in criminal enterprise, taking place in the greater Los Santos area -- a city bearing a striking resemblance to Los Angeles, California. The online game is the best open-world multiplayer I've ever played. It's a difficult game to classify because it does so many different things so well. It's an auto-racer, flight simulator, role-playing game, and first person arcade shooter. It has scores of multiplayer missions, brawls and races as well as a series of four player cooperative "heists" that serve as a fully-fleshed-out online campaign. If cooperative play isn't your thing, there is more than enough open-world player-vs-player action to keep you entertained, as well as random server events and challenges. With 30 player instances there usually isn't a shortage of action on any given server.
GTA5's offline campaign is also popular and highly rated. I found it a bit laborious, and it didn't really draw me in. The game's signature feature, switching between three protagonists, a bit gimmicky and detrimental to getting really immersed in the story. But what it lacks offline is more than made up by the game's online presence which earns GTA5 a place in my top 20. As always, Rockstar was committed to pushing the envelope in M rated games. Change.org protested the game's content and succeeded in getting Target stores in Australia to pull it from the shelves. I consider that an endorsement. At a cost of $265 million in combined development and marketing costs, GTA5 became the most expensive video game ever made.
Anno 2070 is a combination economic simulator, city builder, and realtime strategy game. Depending on your playstyle, you can set up the game to minimize the combat, competition and RTS elements to focus entirely on the economic simulation. The game is set in a Waterworld-esque 2070, where small islands pepper an open sea. The seabed itself, rich in its own resource types, can be exploited once you've unlocked the technology to build underwater. Three factions struggle for control over a zone's limited resources, each with unique strengths and weaknesses.
I enjoyed the game's "story" but the real fun is continuous mode, which lets you play on randomly generated worlds. It gives the game infinite replayability, and lets you carry your advanced research between games using your Ark (main base). I didn't care much for the game's combat mechanics and I only played one match online, which I lost. I did purchase one expansion pack, "Deep Ocean," which added new missions and other game elements - I thought was worth the cost.
Castlevania was an arcade platformer by Konami for the Nintendo Entertainment System in which you mount an assault on Dracula's Castle, battling a host of enemy ghouls and five underbosses. The final battle is with Count Dracula himself who takes on two different forms during the fight. The game's first five stages end in boss-battles with The Phantom Bat, Medussa, The Mummy Men, Frankenstein & Igor, and The Grim Reaper. Your hero is equipped with a whip that can be upgraded twice to longer lengths, and one slot for a special weapon. The original Castlevania spawned a series of over twenty games with scores of ports to various systems, and is one of the most prolific titles in all of video game history.
Castlevania was the first platformer that I became addicted to finishing in one sitting, often using only one in-game life (provided I reached the Grim Reaper still holding a multi-shot holy water.) I'd often kick off an afternoon of NES gaming with a quick run-through of Castlevania. Today, you can find emulated ports that run in your browser, and when paired with a controller and Joy2Key software you can recreate the original gameplay to a tee. I still fire up one of these emulated versions once or twice a year and finish the game. Castlevania is as a paragon of dynamic and exciting play with only two buttons and a directional pad at your disposal.
A heart-pounding, fast-paced, demon-slaying extravaganza, DOOM was a pioneering achievement in immersive 3D graphics and multiplayer gaming. DOOM II was the commercial release of its shareware predecessor, DOOM, but had greater size, complexity, and overall superior map design. DOOM II also provided deathmatch via a direct modem-to-modem connection, local null-modem connection, and later added LAN gaming. This was the first time I ever experienced "seeing" another human-controlled player in a video game, moving around in realtime, in a simulated 3D world. It was astounding.
This game was more than just a ground-breaking technical achievement. DOOM II earns a place in my Top 20 list because it was the first video game that really drew me in. It created the sensation of physically being somewhere else -- namely this terrifying, violent, demon-filled labyrinth. I would sit in class thinking about the game, anxious to get out, so that I could rush back and get into the world of DOOM. Eventually, I would play all of its expansions including the Master Levels and Final Doom.
You are a test subject presented with a series of chambers to navigate in the mazelike laboratories of Aperture Science. Equipped with a "portal gun" that can create navigable, wormhole-like gateways on flat surfaces, you are tasked with finding your way to the exit of each level. Portal 2 is significantly longer, and better than its Orange Box predecessor. Improvements over the original include the addition of an insanely fun two player cooperative mode, a powerful but easy-to-use level editor, new gameplay elements, and a darkly humorous plot with AAA voice acting.
Portal 2 is the best puzzle-solving game in existence, and I regard it as one of the best video games ever made. The only other puzzle solving games that even come close are The Talos Principle and Infinifactory. Playing Portal 2, both by myself and co-op with my friend Matt, was some of the best video game fun I can remember, and I was thrilled to introduce the game to my nephew in 2014. I also had countless hours of fun designing my own levels.
You and a friend take on the roles of Hitman and Max Force, agents of Project NARC, to take the war on drugs to the next level. Armed with sub-machineguns and rocket launchers you blast your way through an urban wasteland, dispatching junkies and drug dealers with extreme prejudice. You drive a fully-armed Porche 9-11 (cherry red, complete with "Say No Or Die" license plate) through crowds of pimps, pcp addicts, and even insane killer clowns. Finally arriving at K.R.A.K. headquarters, you face off against the ultimate drug-kingpin supervillain, Mr. Big. This game was not only fun, but it could actually be beaten on a couple buck's worth of quarters. My friend Matt and I would make trips to the mall arcade just to make sure we still had the high score. Sadly, NARC is an endangered video game. The last re-release in 2004's Midway Arcade Treasures 2 for the PS2 and XBox suffered from forward-compatibility issues, and most emulators you find on the Internet are badly broken.
NARC was way ahead of its time, on multiple fronts. It was the first standup arcade game to run on a 32 bit processor and feature 640x480 color graphics. Known as "medium resolution raster," it was the HD of video in the late 80s. The game also pushed the envelope in on-screen violence, earning it a ban in Australia. When you blasted dope dealers with your rocket launcher, they exploded into bloody chunks or flaming heaps of bone and ash. The game's motto was "Nobody Had The Guts, Until Now." I believe the designers probably crafted that motto with a double meaning: referring not just to the NARC agents fighting the drug war with unconstitutional force, but to the game itself being the first to offer gibbing.
Super Metroid is a 2D, side-scrolling, open world adventure game in the style of its predecessors. The plot has Samus Aran returning to pirate planet Zebes to explore its labyrinth of caves, defeat underbosses Kraid and Ridley, and battle the Mother Brain; nearly the same plot as the original game, but with a few twists. A metroid larva that imprinted on Samus shows up to help defeat the Mother Brain and destroy the pirate planet. Super Metroid is the only SNES title on my gaming page.
Like its predecessors, Super Metroid uses Samus' growth in ability to further her reach into new areas of the map. It's essentially a vastly improved remake of the original Metroid. It preserved the atmosphere and feel of the first two Metroid games, but added some important game mechanics and, of course, the superior graphics afforded by the SNES. I consider Super Metroid the apogee of the franchise.
Contra is an action platformer, and at times a bullet-hell, by game maker Konami. Two players can co-op simultaneously to invade the base of Red Falcon and destroy an army of invading aliens. The final level features creatures that look like the face-huggers from the Alien movie franchise. It also has you shooting alien eggs, and has a very xenomorph looking boss. Some call it a blatant rip-off of the film's elements. The box art for the game is reminiscent of Predator and Rambo as well. As a huge fan of all those movies, Konami's designs worked well on teenage-me, as this became one of my favorite games of all time. The game has several sequels, which I played, but did not find as entertaining as the original.
It was originally release as a stand-up arcade game. I played a bit of the arcade version, which had great graphics, sound, and gameplay, but it was a quarter-eater. The NES version was every bit as fun. The game alternates between side scroll, vertical scroll, and pseudo-3D. Contra is a challenging game, notorious for its difficulty. It operates on a 3-lives mechanic, with earned extra lives -- no health bar. One strike by a bullet kills the player, costing one life. The NES version allowed the "Konami Code" for a starting bank of 30 lives. My brother and I probably played through this game a hundred times using the code.
Rock Band 2 is the best party/social game of all time. Four "band members," two guitarists, a drummer, and a vocalist, can play simultaneously using the game's custom instrument controllers. After starting a song, players must strum or drum the correct buttons or pads on their controllers in sync with the track they are responsible for. Notes fall down from the top of the screen and the musicians must time their actions as the notes reach the bottom. The vocalist must sing along, in tune, with the track as the corresponding lyrics and relative pitch scroll across the top of the screen.
I was particularly fond of the drum kit in this game, as it gave you the best sensation of really playing an instrument in a band. Rock Band 2 allowed you to import 90% of your original Rock Band library, combining the song library from both games and preserving your original investment. Rock Band 2 also introduced "no fail mode" which is great for kids, and a nice freestyle drum-kit mode. I never used the game's online competition mode. This is probably the only video game that I've played by myself, with every one of my friends, and with all of my family members.
Fish Tales is a 1990s-era pinball machine that is has been faithfully recreated in an emulator called Pinball Arcade, available on Steam. The shooter is on a fishing trip during which he can catch fish, lie about how big they were, win different classes of championships (multiball), and trigger a wide variety of special events like feeding frenzy, rock the boat, and monster-fish. Fish-tales has the most satisfying, most symmetric, alternating-ramp-shots of any pin I've ever played. It also has a hilarious "video mode" played on the game's backboard display, in which you torpedo waterskiers and other watersporters who are disrupting the tranquility of your fishing expedition. Fish Tales has highly addictive gameplay, and a great soundtrack to go with it.
I became a bit of a pinball junkie during my college years, and I've played all variety of pins from the oldest electro-mechanical to the newest solid-state. I consider Fish Tales to be the best pinball machine ever created, and I really have to give a five star endorsement to Pinball Arcade for an amazing video-game reproduction of the machine. The emulation of the game's physics is basically flawless. It has all the quirky bounces of the physical machine that I remember, right down to the ball-lock, the captive ball, and the quirky spins and infuriating bounces around the drains. Fish Tales was a challenging pin, and they really captured its essence.
Far Cry 3 takes place on a lush, tropical island somewhere in the southwest Pacific. You become the game's protagonist after your vacation on the island is rudely interrupted by kidnapping pirates. During your quest to free your kidnapped friends you become immersed in the ongoing conflict on the island between its native occupants and the drug-running, slaver pirates who abducted your friends. You undergo a personal transformation from frat-boy to savage freedom-fighter that feels very real. The game's story is much more than your typical video game plot serving as a pretext for the action. It's actually a good story that helps motivate you to keep progressing forward. The story also perfectly meshes with the game's beautiful but deadly tropical setting.
The game is an open-world FPS featuring role-playing elements, with a typical plot-mission and side-mission mechanic. There was an online mode but it doesn't even warrant a rating; it just detracts from an otherwise perfect game. FC3 features a typical compliment of weapons and explosives, and also has spectacularly fun wingsuit flight. The game play is natural and intuitive, and the engine renders the jungles, waterfalls and beaches smoothly in vivid, realistic detail. Far Cry 3's island is probably the most beautiful video game setting of all time.
Metroid is a 2D, side view action adventure game in an open world with areas linked by doors and elevators. Your character, Samus Aran, explores a planet called Zebes in search of enemies who are turning creatures known as Metroids into biological weapons. There are two mini-bosses, Kraid and Ridley, who must be defeated before confronting the final boss, the Mother Brain. Metroid features a highly addictive explore/discover/powerup/explore mechanic. Your character acquires powerups/skills which improve mobility and open up new parts of the map, while also acquiring energy tanks that increase maximum hit points.
Metroid is an iconic NES title that spawned an entire series of games for Nintendo's consoles. It's one of the very best titles for the original NES, and I was pleased to see it included in the "NES Classic Edition" released in 2016 -- now if I could just get my hands on one. The Metroid series eventually ended up in 3D on the GameCube, which was the first Metroid game I never played. Supposedly it was pretty good, but Metroid will always be a side view 2D game for me. Metroid II on the Game Boy was a solid title, but my favorite in the series is Super Metroid for the Super NES, which I consider "Metroid perfected."
Sim City 3000, although being almost 20 years old and built on a 2D engine, is still a great city-builder, and the yardstick by which I measure other city-sims. The critical balance of elements needed for an infinitely replayable city building experience came together in Sim City 3000 and the genre has been copying them ever since, somewhat poorly I might add. It was the first game to have 3 zoning types, trash management, and fully implemented trade with neighbor cities. These are all elements that are now standard in almost every city builder. Sim City 3000 is still the only city builder that does a good job with special optional structures, introducing them at the right time with real, simple, intuitive effects on your city. The game also does some things perfectly that no other city-sim has done since, like properly pacing the difficulty of growth. Nothing ruins a city-sim game faster than making it too easy or too hard to sprawl. SC3K also properly detects large rural areas zoned as industrial, and actually develops farms there.
I just re-purchased SC3K from GoodOldGames, as my CDROM version didn't run anymore. It was worth the ten bucks! EA doesn't even sell it on Origin, probably because it makes their sequels and reboots look like trash. If I were building my own city-sim, I would start by porting Sim City 3000 to a modern engine and then incorporate the excellent traffic simulation that is found in Cities:Skylines. I'd add in some modern features like the ability to follow individual cars or sims, just for fun, and tweak the UI a bit. I'd add scroll wheel zoom, make the cash flow appear on the main window, and add the ability to disable the aging of utility structures.
Stardew Valley is the inspired creation of just one person, from the coding to the artwork to the music. You start the game by quitting your corporate job and moving to a farm you inherited from your grandpa. From there it's up to you to clear the land, sow your crops, build new structures and machinery, and turn a profit. It's a farming and ranching game first and foremost, but it also has some RPG elements and features extensive interaction with numerous NPCs, each with their own story and unique personality. You can even get married and have children.
Stardew is a refreshing change of pace from the type of games I usually play. The game offers a lot of flexibility in how you wish to play it, and you set your own schedule. You can maximize your efficiency, profit, and put every second of your time to use, or you can relax and wander around your farm, talking to townsfolk and trying your luck in various fishing holes. The only area where Stardew disappoints is the lack of a postgame. After two to three in-game years, the player is left only the task of accumulating absurd sums of money to buy expensive trophy items.
In the 2016 release of DOOM you return as the Doom Slayer, a renegade marine who takes it upon himself to slay demons who have crossed into our dimension in a Martian research facility. Naturally, you also follow them back Hell and unleash your fury there. DOOM has the best single player campaign in recent memory. It's also the kind of technical achievement one expects from id software, with a silky-smooth rendering engine and brilliant level design. It has much more complex character and weapons management than the franchise foundation did in DOOM and DOOM II, but not in a way that is detrimental to the flow of action in the game.
The online multiplayer experience has far less appeal, however. Although I enjoyed the open beta, I'll never be sinking a thousand hours into DOOM 2016 multiplayer. I was hoping for more of a lean-and-mean, Quakelike deathmatch experience. There is just enough xp-based unlocking and loadout management to get in the way of the fun. However, I still feel like I owe multiplayer another 5-10 hours of play before rendering a final verdict. The campaign has such brilliant fluidity and mechanics, though, that it has warranted three playthroughs for me so far. The "glory kill," where you move in close to a weakened enemy and finish him by hand with special moves, is extremely satisfying.
Infinifactory is a puzzle game played first-person, in a block-based world ala Minecraft. Given a set of input blocks that arrive at fixed time intervals, you must assemble the desired output objects. You do this with factory blocks at your disposal, such as conveyor belts, sensors, pushers, rotators, lifters, lasers, and welders. After each puzzle is complete you can see how your solution scores against those of the playerbase, in terms of footprint, blocks used, and cycles needed to complete the output. There is a loose "plot" to the game, but it really just serves as a framework for the games phases and menus.
Only around 1% of players finish Infinifactory, and it took me just over eighty hours of play to do it. That's a bit longer than I really wanted to spend in the game, but it was satisfying. The only real replayability the game has is going back and optimizing some of your solutions. I did that for a number of levels near the beginning of the game, after mastering certain techniques, but I don't see myself going back and doing any more. I can't really imagine doing another complete play-through. Still, I'd say Infinifactory is second only to Portal2 as my favorite puzzle game of all time.
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