My five star rating system here is within the context of my favorite games - so a one or two star rating doesn't mean it's a bad game, it's just at the low end of my favorites. Each game has a mini-review that can be expanded, which has a link to the Wikipedia page for the game.
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Half-Life: Alyx is the highly anticipated third installment in Valve's Half-Life series, and it was released as a Virtual-Reality-only title. Valve wanted a signature game to pair with their high-end hardware, the Valve Index VR kit. They hit a bullseye on both. The Index is a great system, and Alyx is the perfect game to demonstrate what is possible on the hardware. This is a true room-scale title, that rewards a large-play area. When I started playing, I immediately cleared out most of my living room so that I could have a 15x15 foot space to play. The movement and inventory system are a world apart from any other VR title I've tried yet, the visuals are amazing, and every bit of the game design really shows that the title was planned out to fully utilize the VR environment from the beginning. The story is also five out of five stars, everything you'd want in a Half Life title. Valve could not have done a better job with the headliner title for their premium headset. Having said all that, there is one problem. The title is too good. It makes other VR games seem like cheap demos designed for ten minutes of play in a retail store. Alyx was the kind of game you think about when you're not playing, and you can't wait to get the headset on again. I look forward to a second playthrough.
The game takes place prior to the Gordan Freeman story in Half Life 2. Alyx fights the Combine, the alien force that has occupied Earth, making her way through the games levels - and she meets interesting allies along the way. The overall objective is to enter the Vault, a mysterious levitating Combine structure at the center of City17. Valve weaves the story intricately through cleverly designed levels which expertly showcase the possibilities of Virtual Reality. The weapons and tools will be familiar to Half Life players, with the obligatory gravity-manipulating devices, in this case "gravity gloves." The weapons are all fun to use, and there is an upgrade system for enhancing them via resources gathered in-game, and puzzle-solving. Alyx is not just a great addition to the Half-Life series, it's an architype for what all VR games should strive to achieve in user interface, graphics, and game mechanics.
Satisfactory is an open-world-sandbox, factory building game set on a diverse alien planet rich with resources, and dangerous creatures. Your character lands on the planet in a pod equipped only with crude weapons, hand tools, and just enough materials to build an initial base. From there, you must gather resources and begin constructing a factory to automate the process of extracting materials and fuels and assembling ever more complex components and machines. Eventually you build a space elevator and begin lifting materials and components skyward, presumably up to the company that hired you for the job, FICSIT. As you expand and explore deeper into the map you will incur damage from angry animals and poisonous plants, which can be healed by eating locally harvested food items. As the game progresses out of early access the developer indicates they will provide a richer "narrative" for the game. They've focused on the core mechanics of the game for now, and it shows. It's a rock-solid early access title.
You can play the game solo, or with friends, but the multiplayer is a bit buggy at the moment. The technology tree is already fairly deep and complex, and there is one more "milestone" release coming as the game reaches completion. If you like piecing together factories and conveyor systems, this is one of the best games to come along in a while. If you prefer first-person/3D then this is definitely the game for you. The UI is intuitive and well thought-out, and there are already multiple third-party web sites available to help you explore the world and map out your factories. Satisfactory is a rewarding experience that gives back every bit you put in, and I look forward to several more plays as the devs finish up the full release.
Conan Exiles is a survival game set in the universe of Conan The Barbarian. Sentenced to death and crucified in the desert, the player is rescued by Conan himself - set free into a brutal realm known as the Exiled Lands. Half a dozen different biomes challenge you as you mine resources, craft your base and deal with the monsters that roam the land intent on killing you. There is a typical RPG leveling system with a perks-tree and a large tree of "feats" that govern what you are able to craft. One unique and well-done feature of this game is the ability to capture NPC savages and break them on your "wheel of pain," after which they become your thralls put to work guarding your base or working your crafting stations (of which there are many). They grant you new formulas and efficiencies depending on their level, with some of them being the most powerful "named thralls." Who knew slavery could be so fun? You can also abduct juvenile animals from the wild and raise them as your guardian pets and pack animals.
Online offers both PvP and PvE experiences. My first max-level character was played solo, offline. I found it satisfying to complete the game's 100-step "Journey" by myself. Although some of the bosses are much too difficult to solo, the single player experience is satisfactory. To play the game to its fullest potential, however, I highly recommend going online. I had much fun teaming up to beat bosses on a friendly PvE server (no destroying other people's stuff), and the game's highly limited fast-travel mechanic works best when everyone can build portals (map rooms) out in the open for everyone to use. The biomes are well done, fun to explore, and offer a very natural south-to-north gradient of difficulty. Steady improvements after a buggy early release have really made this game shine. I have the standard RPG gripes of needing a higher level cap and deeper tree for weapon/armor power. DLC is all cosmetic, as it should be, but fun. I bought two packs.
Subnautica is set on a watery planet where your ship, The Aurora, has crash landed. Your goal is to explore the planet, gather the resources you need to build an escape craft, and get yourself back into space. You're not entirely alone, however. The technology of some ancient aliens is both helping and hindering your progress, and won't let you leave until you cure yourself of a bacterial pathogen which seems to be plaguing the planet. Subnautica is unique in that it takes place almost entirely underwater (as you may have guessed from the name). The underwater environment is beautifully rendered, and the feel of truly being beneath the surface is there. The exploration of the planet is nicely guided by the game's story, while letting you set your own pace and preserving the open-world feel. The diversity of resources is wide, but not overbearing, and crafting is straightforward - but features enough depth to keep it engaging. In other words, it's a very well-balanced survival/crafting experience.
The game is strictly single-player, and is a console port, but has only a few annoying remnants of its life on consoles. There is a VR mode, which works but just barely. The user interface is intuitive and matches the game's complexity well. The world-design is very engaging and fun to explore, making it one of those games you think about when you're not playing - and can't wait to get back to it. The length of the game was just about perfect, I had my fill of it right about the time I finished the story. It's short enough that playing a second game is something I will probably do. There is an expansion released in 2019, which I presently don't plan to buy - but if I hit a dry spell of games I probably will.
PUBG is a multiplayer online shooter in the emerging "battle royale" genre: a large scale, last-man-standing game with only one winner. PUBG matches begin with up to 100 players in solo, duo, or four man squads. A cargo plane carrying all the players in a match flies over an island, approximately 5km x 5km, and players are free to bail out and parachute down over the terrain anywhere they wish. Each player is wearing only cosmetic clothing of their choosing, and has no weapons and no armor. They must locate these items on the island in addition to medical supplies and ammo. This "loot" is found in and around structures or stolen from killed players. The valid play area constricts every few minutes, and being outside of it causes the player to bleed health and eventually die. This ultimately forces all players into confrontation until there is only one survivor or team. Luck is a huge factor in this game, but it's still a blast. There are other battle-royale games to choose from, but I keep coming back to this one, despite some of its problems.
I've sunk an incredible number of hours into this game but I can't promote it to my top twenty. I'm even hesitant to recommend it for purchase, as it should probably be free-to-play given the volume of cosmetic microtransactions offered and their relatively high prices. The main reason I would steer a potential player away from this game is the ubiquitous cheating found in every region, every mode, and at every time of day. When the game is good and clean, it's one of the best titles ever. Unfortunately, though, it's mostly just a waste of time at this point as the hacking is completely out of control. It's an easily remedied problem, but the developer has adopted a recalcitrant attitude. PUBG also suffers from having too many maps and modes for its now-dwindled playerbase. I'll keep it here in my most memorable games list, and try to remember the good times.
Quake Champions has been growing on me substantially as I approach 200 hours, and I see a great deal more play in store for me going forward. The game combines the insanely fast pace of classic Quake with modern "hero shooter" mechanics, and it does it well. All of the Champions that the player can pick from have different starting armor, health and speed. Each also rocks a special ability for use on an extended cooldown. The characters are just unique enough that different playstyles will gravitate toward a favorite -- but remain similar enough to maintain balance and the fell of classic arena Quake. The developers are releasing new Champions and new maps slowly, but steadily. The game seems to be gaining in popularity as matchmaking times have been improving greatly as of late. The game is a visual treat, with the silky-smooth graphics and high framerates you'd expect from an ID game.
It feels great to have a serious arena shooter back in the spotlight, and one that is able to attract a mass of players. It also feels good to be fragging opponents into gib, when almost every video game these days stops with an unsatisfying ragdoll. Bethesda deserves a lot of credit risking making an arena shooter, a format that has been declining in popularity for some time. The unlocks and microtransactions are all cosmetic, as they should be. Players entering the game at the lowest price-point (currently $5) have access to the entirety of the game via easily earned in-game currency, and will unlock most of the critical content (the Champs themselves) in a reasonable amount of time. All in all, Quake Champions has earned its place in the Quake franchise.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a third person / over-the-shoulder military+tactical shooter that has superb support for cooperative online play. You and up to 3 friends are elite "ghost operators" deep in the Santa Blanca drug cartel's territory, somewhere in Bolivia. You carry out the CIA/DEA's dirty work against the cartel while also doing battle with Unidad, the area's corrupt military force. The game has typical open-world mechanics (on an absolutely MASSIVE map) with story missions and side missions, lore to collect, and endless array of vehicles, weapons, and equipment to find. It's like a Far Cry game with a better graphics engine, better mechanics, and better cooperative play. Oh, and the cartel isn't the only thing trying to kill you in the jungle. A certain other-worldly visitor with adaptive cammo and a shoulder-mounted plasma cannon also wants your hide.
I played this game with one friend, and I can only imagine that it would be even more fun with a full squad of four. I really enjoyed the "tactical" aspects of this game, perhaps because of the unique drone mechanics. Each player has an airborne drone they can use to recon sites and mark enemies. I'm usually a "go in strong through the front door" player in games like this, but in GRWL the stealth element was rewarding and fun. The story was also excellent; maybe not quite Far Cry 3 level excellent, but engaging and fun. I can't stress how much the graphics add to the immersion of this game. The foliage is really next-level for a video game. Doing foliage correctly is an absolute must if you're going to do right by the Predator.
Overwatch is an online-only, six versus six first person shooter. Teams work to move payloads or secure checkpoints/bases, similar to the mechanics of Team Fortress 2. Teamwork is essential, and a blend of heroes on the team is essential to victory most of the time. Heroes are generally categorized into offense, defense, support, and "tank" classes, with tanks being the most resilient to enemy fire. Battles take place on a wide variety of well designed maps.
Blizzard continues to add new characters and maps to the game at no additional charge, and all microtransactions and upgrades are cosmetic in nature. It's a buy-once and play forever model. The backstory and lore behind the game are as contrived and dopey as most games of this type, but the heroes themselves are extremely well designed, balanced, and interesting. They've made it fun to try every character, which speaks to the overall quality of the game. The open beta was highly polished and bug-free, and the commercial release was appropriately priced and a great value.
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.
Tom Clancy's The Division is an online, open-world, third person, cover-based shooter with RPG elements. The game takes place in near-future Manhattan after an outbreak of genetically engineered smallpox, instigated by eco-terrorists. Agents of "The Division" are dispatched to the city to help restore order, equipped with high-tech augmented reality systems and a wide array of weapons, armor, equipment, and skills. There are safe-houses scattered throughout the city, and one central base of operations with upgradeable "wings" that unlock the games perks, skills, and crafting elements.
The online campaign is a series of missions within the open world that can be played in a team of one to four people. The "Dark Zone," an area of central Manhattan, serves as a PVP area that players can risk entering in order to recover more advanced gear and weapons for use in the regular game. I highly recommend this game if you have a regular group of friends to play with. The cooperative play is extremely well done, and the main plot can be finished in a reasonable amount of time. The Division is very playable after the main plot missions are finished. It has a satisfying endgame/postgame.
Steep is an online, open-world, extreme sports game featuring skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, wingsuit flying, and sledding. The player loads into an available massif (currently the Alps or Alaska) and spawns into a drop site. By exploring the terrain additional drop sites can be located and unlocked, as well as challenges that can be completed to earn in-game currency. The player can also use a "helicopter ticket" to travel to any point on the map, with tickets being acquirable with in-game currency and becoming unlimited/free when the player levels up sufficiently. You can play by yourself or group with up to three other friends, or random people you meet out on the mountain.
The challenges/courses are great, as well as the "mountain stories" which are adventures through checkpoints serving as a sort of campaign. But the real fun of Steep is just exploring the map and finding awesome new terrain and lines, and it's even more fun with a friend/group. The play area is expansive, beautiful, and fun to explore, and the game's mechanics are well implemented. The sensation of skiing/snowboarding in deep powder is captured nicely and, unlike most video games, a session of Steep can be very relaxing. There's no shortage of action too, if you want to freestyle some amazing stunts or take a death-defying wingsuit flight.
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.
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.
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.
Rocket League is described as a "vehicular soccer" game. It's an online team-based game in which you control a rocket car and try to hit a giant ball into the opposing team's goal. Teams can be from 1v1 to 4v4, with the standard match being 3v3. There is cross-platform play between consoles and PC, having no particular advantage for any platform. Experience unlocks cosmetics to customize your car, as well as different models of vehicle. There is also a microtransaction feature to unlock more cosmetics in "crates" which the player wins. I am not a fan of the actual, real-life game of soccer...like, at all. So the fact that I recommend this game says something. Just catch it on sale.
The basic mechanics are easy to learn. There is a rocket boost, a jump, a handbrake, forward/backward throttle, and two camera settings. Mastery of the techniques involved in using these mechanics takes quite a bit of practice. The game is quickly addicting, and great fun to play with friends. There are more game modes than just vanilla soccer should you manage to get bored. There is a basketball, hockey, and a brawl-mode with special powerups/weapons. I had friends constantly recommending it to me, and I would have bought Rocket League earlier but it was overpriced. Online-only arena games are ten dollar games, tops, unless they pack amazing depth and variety. I waited until a $13 sale for Rocket League and still feel like that was high.
Cities:Skylines is the best city-builder to come along in nearly twenty years. It has an intuitive interface and the same, familiar concepts that the Sim City franchise perfected with Sim City 3000 back in 1999. Skylines does everything right that Sim City 2013 and Cities XL did wrong. You aren't stumbling into a quagmire of DLC, with a persistent connection requirement and a ham-fisted online multiplayer. The road building tools work like you think they are going to work, and the zoning mechanics are straightforward. It's traditional, city-building fun without unnecessary complexity.
Lay out your roads, water pipes, power grid, and then start zoning. Crank up the simulation speed and watch the buildings shoot up. Manage your trash and sewage, and grow, grow, grow. If that's the city-sim experience you want, then Skylines is for you. Just be ready for one thing: Skylines is also a full-fledged traffic simulator. Your city's health depends as much on how well you handle your traffic infrastructure as anything else. I found that aspect of the game a source of great fun. I docked it one star for annoying cemetery micromanagement and because the pace of growth is flawed in larger cities, with sudden unexplained drops in revenue. I also felt the added complexity of districts and natural resources added nothing to the experience.
2015's Battlefront is the third installment in the Star Wars Battlefront series, and the first that I played. It's a first person shooter that puts you right into the fight between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. You configure a loadout of weapons and accessories and then spawn into the battle. In-game power pickups can drop you into air and ground vehicles, or allow you to take on the role of a powerful hero from the series; think Darth Vader running around force-choking rebels. It's a bit stacked against you until you unlock better weapons, but still fun. There is no offline campaign, it's strictly an online team-based game.
This game does an absolutely amazing job of looking and sounding like Star Wars. It's the closest you can get to actually being in the Star Wars universe. The maps are well designed and beautiful, especially the ones on the forest moon of Endor. The game does, however, suffer from some critical flaws. There is no server browser, so forget having a favorite, well managed server with active admins who kick cheaters. Player blocking features do not work, so you can get dropped into a game with the same hacker five times in a row. Lastly, the squad/party concept is worthless in this game with only one real "partner" that you can cooperate with. I still had a blast in this game. The game itself is well made, it's largely the lobby management tools that are insufferably broken.
Anno 2205 is the simplified successor to Anno2070, and is a great game for people who are new to economic simulators. For seasoned pros who liked the complexity of 2070, it feels a bit-dumbed down. It's still a lot of fun and has beautiful graphics, and a well designed interface. The addition of the moon as an exploitable region adds some entertaining gameplay. The combat experience of the game is even further separated from the player, taking place in custom sectors designed specifically for battle, and is completely optional...just helpful for rare resources. I really appreciated that design decision.
Anno2205 feels larger than its predecessor, in that you can develop large cities in multiple sectors that are all contributing to your overall economy. But it feels more limited at the same time, lacking the randomly generated worlds of 2070's "continuous mode." Still, there is no shortage of well-designed maps for you to exploit. If you liked 2070, then put this title on your buy-list. Just don't pay full price.
The Talos Principle is a first person puzzle game, and probably the best one out there outside of Infinifactory and the Portal series. The puzzle-solving involves the navigation of the mazelike maps with manipulation of colored light beams to activate and deactivate other game features, boxes for climbing, and jammer units that can deactivate threats and game elements. The game also has a clever device that lets the player record a trace of themselves performing actions, and then play back those actions while performing additional actions. This adds to the depth and complexity of the puzzle solving. Through solving the game's puzzles you collect tiles, called "sigils," which are used in a Tetris-like minigame to unlock new levels.
The game's plot is philosophical in nature, with the player taking on the role of a robot who awakens in an environment that appears to serve as some kind of testing grounds for AIs. Some tragedy has befallen humanity, and there appears to have been a scientific effort to salvage its culture and essence. The decisions you make while navigating the world affect how the game ultimately ends, with your robot being prompted with many existential exercises during his tests in the mazes. I found the game to be an excellent puzzle-solver, and the plot was interesting enough that I played through all of the available endings. I'd recommend it to anyone needing a first person puzzle fix.
The Stick of Truth is a roll-playing game with turn-based fighting based on the animated series South Park. The game is designed to look like the cartoon, played third person from a straight-on view. You play the roll of "new kid" in town, who joins up with the familiar series characters who are engaged in their own human vs. elves fantasy/roll-playing game, serving as a backdrop for the plot. An incident with a UFO crashing into the town, a government coverup, and a Nazi-zombie invasion flush out the story. No South Park adventure would be complete without a battle with Al Gore, a visit from Mr. Hankey and his family, and a trip up Mr. Slave's rectum. Any fan of the show will love this game. I found myself laughing out loud every few minutes.
The thing I enjoyed most about this game was the overall feel that you were in an episode of the show. They stayed completely true to both the spirit of the show and its characters and setting, while at the same time coming up with an original plot that feels like part of the show. I have a strong dislike of turn-based fighting mechanics, but it worked fairly well with the design of this game. I can't give it more than three stars, as it lacks replayability for me, but as soon as the successor game comes down in price (The Fractured But Whole) I know I'll be buying it.
Far Cry 4 is an open world FPS/RPG very similar to its series predecessor, but taking place in a Himalayan country called Kyrat. Like Far Cry 3, you become embroiled in a struggle between an army of rebels and the tyrant controlling the country. The story doesn't pack quite the punch that FC3 did, and the mountain setting isn't as breathtaking as the tropical island. But, thankfully, there is still a wingsuit.
This installment in the series has one major improvement over FC3: the addition of an online, cooperative two-player mode. You and a friend can take on outpost liberations and a host of side missions, just not the main campaign missions. My friend Matt and I found FC4's co-op uproariously fun and logged more than a few hours flying in mini-copters, killing bad guys, and hunting Himalayan beasts.
Banished is a resource management city building game set in a rural, wooded environment with various natural resources and technology roughly equivalent to the late 18th century. A group of settlers has been outcast, and you must ensure their survival and build them a town/economy. Citizens are born, age, reproduce, die, and must be assigned jobs during their productive years and buried when they die. There are occasional injections of new population in the form of "nomads" that the town can absorb. Resources must be planned and stockpiled, as the game has seasons and the winter can be harsh.
The main challenge of Banished is managing the health and happiness of your population and dealing with the natural boom/bust cycle in the number of people in your town. The game starts as more of a survival simulation and then shifts gears to a city builder and more of a sandbox. I enjoyed both aspects of the game, and thought they were well done. There is a somewhat limited amount of land you can expand into, and some structures leave the land irreclaimable for other purposes after they decay. That means games of Banished have a definite point where they feel "over," with most people shooting for a certain population as a win-condition.
Battlefield 4 is in a small club of games where I've logged hundreds of hours, but don't consider it a Top 20 game. It's a really good game, it's just not as good as its predecessor. I've dinged the game a full star just for its terrible attack helicopters. BF3 had attack choppers that were nimble and responsive, BF4 had flying bathtubs. The game is banned in China, and my tongue-in-cheek theory is because the depiction of its attack chopper is so awful. I would have been content to keep playing BF3, but when you play with a regular group of people you have to follow the herd to some extent. My favorite map pack for BF4, Second Assault, consists of refreshed maps from BF3.
Despite my gripes, BF4 was still lots of fun and worth 500 hours of my time. In my mind, my BF3 and BF4 hours (total of ~1725) meld together. BF4 can be thought of as a $100 patch for BF3 that made the game slightly worse. This game is a major reason I built a new PC in 2013. It packs great graphics and the same, fiercely addictive 64-player madness as BF3. It also introduced a ranking/metrics system which showed you how well you were doing compared to other players - right down to the state and city levels. With the 2016 release of "Battlefield 1," a game I am not fond of in the least, I wish my friends were still playing BF4.
Path Of Exile is a free-to-play dungeon crawler RPG with mechanics similar to other titles in the genre, such as Diablo and Torchlight. The game's signature feature is a massive skill tree, the planning and navigating of which is almost a strategy game in itself. With randomly generated outdoor terrain and dungeons, the experience remains fresher upon replay. The game serves up an excellent single player expedition, but really shines when you party-up with friends online. My only gripe with Path is balance issues between classes, and a confusing and seemingly unnecessary league system. Those problems infest the genre as a whole, and certainly reflect my own preferences for hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers.
Path of Exile represents incredible value as an FTP title. Supported by microtransactions which give the player only cosmetic alterations, anyone new to the genre should definitely give this game a try before buying an overpriced-for-its-age title like Diablo III. A new player should definitely familiarize himself with the skill-tree before playing, as having a general goal of where to allocate skill points will greatly enhance the experience when the hours start building up. Otherwise, anyone even vaguely familiar with this style of game can pretty much jump right in...for free!
Warframe is a free-to-play, over the shoulder, 3rd person shooter with a futuristic/sci-fi theme. The game is played cooperatively online and best enjoyed with friends, although it is possible to have a satisfying solo experience. The player chooses a warrior class from a race called the Teno who have awoken from an extended hypersleep to find themselves at war with the humanoid Grineer. That's all you really need know or care about the plot, as it's pretty cursory to the action. The game's namesake comes from powersuits sported by the protagonists, which are the basis for active and passive abilities. Players can customize and equip different Warframes and build synergies with allies in co-op. There is a variety of weapons, as well as a modding/upgrade system for the weapons.
Warframe has a loot-drop system with a blueprint/build mechanic that utilizes microtransactions to secure certain materials or decrease build-times. Spending real world money is optional, with patience/grinding serving as an alternative currency. Players can also survive being "downed" so many times within a given time, with another opportunity to spend real world money buying revives; again, totally optional. As free-to-play shooters go, it's as tolerable a revenue model as any. I highly recommend playing in a full team of four online. I really had a lot of fun with this title, and would play again now if I had any interested friends.
Diablo III is a role-playing dungeon crawler with six character classes to choose from. It has typical mechanics for weapons and armor inventory, item socketing, and character leveling. Your hero has physical attacks and an array of magic attacks fueled by different kinds of power. Although you can play the game by yourself, I never did. I always played online in a party of friends, which was quite fun. The game's story is divided into four acts, at the end of which you battle and defeat the Prime Evil himself, Diablo. There is a secret cow level.
The game has undergone numerous changes since its launch, including alterations to its leveling system and difficulty tiers, crafting, and the removal of a real-money auction house for in-game items. Diablo 3 did not drop substantially in price for several years after release, which is why I didn't buy the game until 2015. There is one expansion that I'd be interested in buying, but not at its current price. Although marginally better than most rival games, Diablo 3 faces some pretty tough competition from free and substantially cheaper titles such as Path of Exile and Torchlight. In late 2017 I purchased the Reaper of Souls expansion, and enjoyed it.
Torchlight II is a roll-playing dungeon crawler, with familiar classes, inventory management, magic/health system, skill tree, and loot drops. The main story is divided into three acts, a familiar trend in the genre, with a main encampment/town in each serving as a place to group with friends and craft/buy/sell items. Online games can accommodate a party size of six players. The style of Torchlight is a little more cartoony than Diablo, but the environments all look great.
I have not played any other games in the Torchlight series, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I think it's every bit as good as Diablo III at a fraction of the cost. The artwork, acting, and programming are all AAA quality -- but it doesn't really bring anything new to the genre, so I can't justify giving it more than three stars. Still, clocking in at 47 hours of play, I can say that this game will scratch your itch to play a hack-and-slash dungeon game every bit as much as Diablo.
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.
Inside is the successor game to Limbo, and the two are so similar (and so short) that I'm combining them here. Both are side scrolling puzzle-platformers in which a boy navigates a dreary dystopia solving environmental puzzles. There are also environmental and enemy threats that can kill the player. The games have a drab monochrome-ish palette for their haunting landscape, which is bleak and drab yet oddly beautiful at the same time. These two games are also full of surprises, with strange yet intuitive new mechanics being introduced along the way. Limbo and Inside's imagery and plot are dark and confounding, and sometimes graphic. I'm almost hesitant to use the term "platformer" when describing them, as to avoid ascribing any Mario-esque cheerfulness.
Limbo was released for PC by Playdead studios in 2011, and I bought it in 2012. Inside was released in 2016 and I bought it in 2017. Inside took me four hours to finish, and Limbo took me five. Despite my low hours in these games, they are still among some of my favorites. They feel the right length when you are playing them, and they don't take on the tediousness of some puzzle games that try to give you too much content. As a value proposition, though, try to get them for a few dollars each. If you are hesitant and only want to play one of them, get Inside first. I consider it the slightly better game.
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.
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.
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.
Skyrim is an open-world RPG played either from a first or third person perspective. The game is set in a massive world, called Skyrim, which is embroiled in an internal conflict and also being terrorized by dragons. Your character is himself a "dragonborn," possessing the powers of a dragon but in mortal humanoid form. The plot revolves mostly around discovering and unlocking these powers. All the familiar RPG elements of exploration, skill leveling, gear, crafting and main/side quests are present. The mechanics are similar to other Bethesda RPG's like the Fallout series.
I should say that this is the first game in the Elder Scrolls series that I've played. I bought it, after it substantially decreased in price, solely because of its reviews, popularity, and graphics. I had immense fun exploring the world and found the first twenty hours of plot quite entertaining. Those aspects alone make it one of my most memorable games, and I've considered buying the newly released remaster of the game. The blur between side and main quests is the reason I ultimately quit playing without finishing the main plot, having gotten too bogged down in some guild quests. I felt like I still had another twenty hours ahead of me even though I had explored the entire map. Regardless, I can see why people say this is one of the greatest games of all time.
Civ 5 is member of the "expand, explore, exploit, exterminate" genre, a so called 4X game. It has a board game feel to it, with turn based strategy play on a hex map. The players in a game represent the leader of a civ (nation or group) competing to settle and exploit the land and its natural resources. Eventually the civs will come into conflict with alliances and warfare ensuing, and elimination/control of other players brings about the conquest end of the game. Players can also achieve victory via other win conditions; there are culture, diplomacy and research channels to a victory.
This was the first Civ game that I played, and I enjoyed it. I don't think turn based 4X games will ever be at the very top of my list, but this one held my attention. Watching the evolution of a civ's buildings and units over time is a nice aspect of the game, and the difficulty settings when playing against computer opponents are fairly well-tuned. I did not play this game online against human opponents. When Civ 6 released in 2016 I was initially tempted to buy it, but I refrained and I'm content to wait for a significant price decrease.
Quake Live is an online-only arena deathmatch FPS. It was based on Quake 3 Arena and released as a browser plugin that was free to play, with a subscription available to remove advertisements and unlock additional content. Later the game was scrapped as a browser plugin and released on Steam as a purchase, with the subscription/ads removed from the revenue model. The game has a ton of server modes, but I played classic free-for-all and capture the flag almost exclusively.
I really liked this title in its early days, and it ran amazingly well right in the web browser. Although I believed Q3 Arena inferior to Quake 2 in myriad ways, by 2010 I had learned to accept those deficiencies and I played quite a bit of Quake Live. Being free to play certainly didn't hurt. I did purchase the game when it moved to Steam in 2015, but I've only logged a dozen or so hours. The skill level of the remaining playerbase is so absurd that you can't really even improve your own play.
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.
Arkham Asylum is a third person, over the shoulder action adventure game based on D.C.'s Batman mythos. The main plot of the game pits Batman against the lore's archetypal nemesis, The Joker (voice acted by Mark Hamill.) The game features a tight campaign set in an open world. The open world is perfectly sized and constrained around the campaign to allow for lots of exploring without being overwhelming or disorienting. Your surroundings on an island off the coast of Gotham are dark, creepy, and beautiful at the same time. I played it four years after release and was still impressed by the graphics. The Arkham Asylum itself is well designed, feeling both realistic and comic-book-ish at the same time.
I'm not a superhero or comic book fan, and the Batman story is pretty uninteresting to me -- so the fact that I consider this game one of my favorites should tell you something. It's well designed as a video game, stands on its own merits, and doesn't require the player to know any Batman mythos going in. The mechanics of Batman's movements and fighting are exceptionally well done, and there are just enough real weapons that you don't get stealth/hand-to-hand fatigue. Having said all that, I own the successor game (Batman: Arkham City) and have not been motivated to play it.
Minecraft is a sandbox video game set in a block-based world where players can destroy blocks in the game and build things out of different types of cubes. It's the most well-known and successful sandbox game of the last twenty years, probably of all time, and can be found on pretty much every gaming platform there is. Minecraft has had a very long lifespan, virtually all of it under some phase of development. I played what is now called "Minecraft Classic," the original PC beta phase of the game where you could connect to worlds(servers) online and build. This is now known as "creative mode," where there are no in-game threats and no survival aspect. Later I would play many hours with my niece and nephews on the XBOX360 version.
Minecraft captured the essence of a sandbox game, and has been likened to playing with Legos. I enjoyed it immensely, and would have played much more of it over the years had it not been written in Java. I always described it as "the game with 1996 graphics that won't run on 2006 hardware." In addition to opening up your computer to a universe of security vulnerabilities, Java was constantly updating itself, hiding in the background, generally sucking, and nourishing a generation of lazy coders. I only had Minecraft on my machine for a few months that preceded a (planned) complete OS reinstall. The XBox360 release in 2012 was welcome news, as I could own this game without having it on my PC.
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.
Grand Theft Auto IV is an open world, third person shooter where the player navigates the city/countryside on foot or vehicle. The main story is that of Niko Bellic, an eastern European immigrant to Liberty City in pursuit of the American dream. Duped by his cousin, a degenerate gambler named Roman who always wants to go bowling, Niko quickly falls into working for loan sharks and descends into the criminal underworld of Liberty City.
Vice City was about six years old at this point. I played a little GTA San Andreas, but never really got in to it. I'm in the extreme minority among fans of the series, but I thought S.A. was the weakest game in the franchise. GTA4 definitely brought the series back for me, and I knew after just a few hours of play that I'd be finishing the game. I went back to play one of the expansions, The Lost And The Damned, when it went on sale a couple years later.
Team Fortress 2 is an online multiplayer FPS pitting two teams against each other, with players choosing from among nine character classes. Choosing a good balance among the major roles helps a team achieve a balance among offense, defense, support, and recon. There are multiple game modes with payload movement and control point being among the most popular, and familiar. Team balance and cooperation are as important as individual skill. In 2011 the game became free-to-play, supported by microtransactions for cosmetic items.
TF2 was included in Valve's Orange Box collection, along with Half Life 2 and the groundbreaking title Portal. I credit these games with reviving PC gaming for me, after a disappointing half-decade where I was playing mostly console titles. TF2 was the first game that I played that successfully used cartoonish art and graphics, and was a visual treat in addition to being a very fun game to play. The concepts in Team Fortress, and its artistic inspiration, are still found in titles a decade later, such as Overwatch.
BioShock is a RPG/FPS set in an underwater city, Rapture, in the year 1960. Rapture is an Ayn-Randian, Galt's-Gulch-like utopia where scientific progress can flourish, unimpeded by the government. The discovery of a mutagen called ADAM introduced super powers to the population of Rapture, which now lies in art deco ruins after an internal power struggle and war. The player is solving a mystery where the power brokers of Rapture are not who they seem, and moral decisions are not black and white.
BioShock came out during a time when there were very few games with interesting plots, and it had an excellent story, with fun game mechanics to go with it. The underwater city and backdrop of objectivism with concepts from Atlas Shrugged, combined with the supernatural elements of genetic mutation, give the game a perfect atmosphere, and allow the (somewhat convoluted) plot to hold your attention. The RPG elements, powers, weapons and mechanics are all well designed and fun. The successor games in the series were nowhere near as good. I quit playing Bioshock2 and Infinite just a few hours into each.
Modern Warfare was the first game in the COD franchise to break away from the WWII setting, and it was a commercial success met with critical acclaim. The game is a first person shooter set in modern times, and was the first title I ever played with realistic weapons and settings from the present day. The plot takes place in the year 2011 and ropes in middle eastern terrorists, Russian nationalists, and allied US and British special forces -- in a somewhat prescient story that seems to have become more relevant as the years have passed.
This game did have a large online presence, but I never played. At the time Microsoft charged a monthly fee just to "go online" in games you already owned. A remastered version was released in 2017 and I'm considering buying it for PC when it gets cheaper. The campaign was exceptionally well done, and the switching between protagonists was fluid, not gimmicky, and really complimented the plot. The campaign featured one of my favorite missions ever in a video game: Death From Above -- you operate the thermal camera and weapons on a AC-130 gunship, assisting a ground team accomplish their objective and make it to an extraction point.
Gears of War is a cover-based, 3rd person, over-the-shoulder shooter that puts you in the role of a hardened marine fighting against a subterranean enemy known as the Locust. The signature weapon is the Lancer assault rifle with chainsaw bayonet mounted for "close encounters." The game uses the familiar cover-to-recover health mechanic, but fades in the game's trademark red cog to indicate increasing damage. It combines this with an incapacitation mechanic that allows teammates to revive you unless you are down for too long. This game didn't do any one thing spectacularly, but it did everything well. The story was good, the mechanics were good, and the level design was fresh and fun.
Gears of War can be played co-op with one other player. There was an online multiplayer as well, but I never had a paid XBox Live subscription so I didn't try it. Part of the reason I have so few modern-console titles as favorite games is the additional monthly fees that are charged just to go online, whereas almost all PC games having multiplayer will run free servers. The Gears of War campaign still stands out as one of the best XBox 360 titles. It spawned a series of four more titles, which I never played. I regret that slightly, but in 2008 I started moving sharply away from consoles - and this was mainly a Microsoft console series.
Scarface is an open world, third person adventure/shooter set in the world of the 1983 movie Scarface. The game takes place in an alternate timeline where Tony Montana survives the end of the film, quits using cocaine and sets about rebuilding his empire. The plot is structured around turf, with areas not unlocking for missions until Tony controls a previous area of turf at 100%. The primary quest item is, of course, cocaine. The player must obtain it, sell it, then launder the money. This must all be done while battling rival gangs and law enforcement.
I bought this game on the recommendation of a Game Stop employee, a fact that I remember because I think it's the only time I ever did. It was a fantastic recommendation. Scarface was the game that GTA Vice City tried to be. Vice City is still a solid game in its own right, but it wanted to be a de-branded Scarface (not licensing any Scarface IP) while still being Grand Theft Auto. Scarface: The World Is Yours packs everything a GTA game offers and provides full immersion in the Scarface universe, including voice acting by some of the original cast; but not Pacino, however he did personally select a sound-alike for the game.
You play Half Life 2's protagonist, Gordon Freeman, who is charged with saving humanity from enslavement by the forces of the alien Combine. It's a first person shooter with stealth and puzzle elements and makes heavy use of the series' signature weapon, the gravity gun. The game was designed from the ground up to exploit Valve's new Source engine, which allowed for physics puzzles and extensive interaction with the environment to defeat enemies. Half Life 2 is widely considered one of the best video games ever made. The series entered iconic locations, creatures, and weapons into gaming lore forever. Ravenholm, the headcrab, and the crowbar are now permanent parts of video game culture.
Although HL2 was released in 2004, I didn't play it until the console version came out later. Even though I bought the Orange Box for PC eventually, the first copy of HL2 I owned was for the XBox 360. My Steam account has hours logged for Portal and Team Fortress 2, but none for Half Life 2, which is kind of funny. There were follow-on episodes for HL2 but I never got into them, having played about 3 total hours between Episode 1 and Episode 2. The world awaits Half Life 3, and it's become a running gag on the Internet. Half Life is not the only Valve franchise that stalled out after two games -- "Valve can't count to three."
Motherload is the only web-based (Flash) game that made it into my favorites list. You control a small, hovering, mining craft that digs below the Martian surface looking for fortune. The deeper you dig the deadlier the environment, but the more valuable the minerals. You must return to the surface to refuel and sell the treasures you collected below. The money you earn can be used to purchase upgrades for your craft that are needed to reach the deepest, and most rewarding, areas of the map....and battle the mysterious Mr. Natas. You can try it yourself here.
Although I bought Super Motherload when it came out for Steam, I didn't think it was as good as the original. Motherload is the perfect Flash game, simple and addictive with great background music. It takes seconds to learn, but requires attentive and cautious play to finish. You get a real sense of exploration as you dig deeper, wondering what ever more valuable gems you will find. The reward and upgrade system is perfectly scaled to the length of the game, and the final battle is hard but not too hard.
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.
Manhunt falls into the survival-horror genre, but is significantly darker than your average survival-horror game. You play the role of a death row inmate who, after his execution is faked, is forced to participate in snuff films for an evil, shadow figure known only as "The Director." You are directed through the games "scenes," dispatching your victims and being rewarded with higher ratings for more brutal and violent slayings. Most of the time the people you are killing are depraved, criminal scumbags themselves. Eventually, of course, you kill The Director and escape into the shadows.
Manhunt heavily employed stealth game mechanics, and did it quite well. That meshed nicely with the game's theme. It was a blast to play, especially with friends. I killed the better part of a day (so to speak) playing it with my friends Lucas and Chris, taking turns at the controls. People were calling it "the most violent video game ever made" at the time, and that was probably a selling point as much as a criticism. It was banned in multiple countries, faced actual confiscation in Germany, and in Canada was reclassified as a film just to further restrict sales.
Grand Theft Auto III is an open world, third person shooter where the player navigates the city/countryside on foot or vehicle. There is a linear campaign that takes the player through a main story, and a variety of side missions available in the open world. The player stars as a convict who escapes during a mafia assault on a prison transport. You work as hired help for the mafia, and eventually the Yakuza, and do battle with a Columbian cartel.
GTA3 was the reason I bought a Play Station 2. I played it at a friend's house and was instantly hooked. I was familiar with the series, but this was the first 3D installment and its open world and freeform violence impressed me. It was the first 3D/open world game where people, cars, and other objects really responded in a realistic manner, matching your expectations of what would happen. Not to say that the action wasn't over-the-top, I'm referring more to the game's physics, graphics, and damage models. Rockstar Games showed not only technical acumen, but real bravery in pushing the boundaries of what was considered too violent or distasteful to put in a video game. Two years later, they'd do it again with Manhunt.
Red Faction is a first person shooter that takes place in a mining colony on Mars. The corporation that owns the mines is, of course, cruel and abusive. They are also carrying out experiments on the miners using nanotechnology, resulting in a plague-like disease in the colony. You play the role of a miner who joins the rebellion, the Red Faction, against the corporation. Red Faction was known for its game engine that allowed for destructible terrain. That allowed for unique level designs with access to areas requiring the player to "dig" through specific parts of the map.
I picked up Red Faction on the recommendation of a store employee when I went looking for a new game after finishing Grand Theft Auto II. It was a good recommendation, and I found Red Faction to be thoroughly enjoyable. This was one of the earliest games that I remember using Internet walkthroughs to get me through areas that had me stumped.
Red Alert 2 is a real time strategy game with two factions, the Soviets and the Allies. It follows the events of Red Alert, with a defeated Soviet Union having rebuilt and launched a surprise invasion on the United States. Under the shadow leadership of a mysterious psychic name Yuri, and Employing mind control and other "psychic technology," the Soviets quickly overrun America. The allies are tasked with driving out the invaders, and have access to teleportation technology developed by Albert Einstein. The Soviet campaign has the player fighting the Allies and dealing with the usual internal Russian subterfuge, and must ultimately dispose of Yuri.
I only played a little bit of online Red Alert 2 with friends, generally preferring the campaign and skirmish mode. This game was the peak of the Red Alert franchise, with some of the most iconic units like the Kirov Airship, the dolphins and giant squids. Red Alert 3 was only mildly entertaining, and really felt like the series was getting worn out.
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.
1080 Snowboarding is a 3rd person, downhill snowboarding game offering both racing and trick modes. A total of six game modes are available, with a champ-select of six snowboarders and eight boards. The athletes all have different weights, speeds, and abilities. Split screen racing against a second player is also available. I bought this title a second time in 2010 when I had access to a friend's N64, and is probably my favorite game for that console.
I was doing a bit of IRL snowboarding at the time I bought this game, and it was a great purchase. 1080 Snowboarding had a quality physics model and represented the appearance and "feel" of snow quite well. Hard pack, ice and powder all behaved differently and appropriately and gave a very convincing feel of actually snowboarding. The diversity of game modes kept the game interesting for many hours, and the practicing and landing of tricks made for addictive game play. This is one of my favorite snow sports titles of all time, and didn't meet its equal until Steep was released in 2016.
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.
San Francisco Rush was a series of popular arcade racing games which made their way to the N64 in fairly faithful ports. The racing was set in San Francisco and the various tracks made use of San Fran landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Lombard Street. The arcade cabinet was memorable for its seated configuration with 3 pedals and a stick shift for manual transmission driving. The arcade game also had a login system which could save your progress. A choice of three classes of cars was offered: normal, advanced, and extreme. The N64 edition, which I would play the most, had a system of hidden keys that could be found to unlock additional tracks.
The last big hit in the Rush series was San Francisco Rush 2049, which I played quite a bit on the N64. It was the same basic game in a much more futuristic setting, with a few tweaks. Like its predecessors it had tons of hidden and secret areas on the racing tracks. I think the ability to explore outside the basic track and find these secrets is what made the series a favorite of mine. Rush 2049 also had a split-screen battle mode where you could duel with friends in weapon-equipped cars.
Redneck Rampage was a hilarious first person shooter themed around hillbilly violence. The plot involved two brothers, Leonard and Bubba, fighting to rescue their pig and thwart an alien invasion. There were lots of new FPS's popping up in the late 90s, and this was one of the funniest. There were levels in a trailer park and a meat packing plant, chickens running around everywhere, and weapons like a saw-blade launcher and dynamite crossbow. Health and powerup items included pork rinds and moonshine, with loss of coordination ensuing after too much imbibing.
This game had me laughing out loud as I played it. It had hilarious voice acting, that got even more uproarious after you added the optional cuss pack. This was the first instance of paid DLC I can remember that existed simply to make the game filthier. There were multiple expansion packs and a sequel that I did not play.
C&C: Red Alert is a real time strategy prequel to the original "Command & Conquer" released a year earlier. Red Alert takes place in an alternate timeline where Albert Einstein invented time travel and killed Hitler. Stalin, secretly advised by a shadowy figure named Kane, has expanded the power and borders of the Soviet Union and an alternate WWII is underway between the Soviets and the Allies. The player mines minerals and gems, as Tiberium has not been discovered yet, but the game is considered part of the "Tiberium Universe." In both of the game's endings Kane and the Brotherhood Of Nod rise to power, post-Stalin, setting the stage for the events of the original Command and Conquer.
Red Alert featured new interface mechanics, like construction queueing, that are still part of the genre today. It was a fairly large step forward over its predecessor. The plot was also just as entertaining and embodied well in the campaign missions. Both factions were well balanced and fun to play. I played online a handful of times, mostly with my friends. But, as with this entire franchise, it was mostly a single player experience for me -- and a great one.
The Jetfighter series were combat flight simulators that allowed the player to engage in dogfights in military jet aircraft, perform carrier landings, and shoot missiles at buildings in San Francisco if you got bored. All the games in the Jetfighter series had cutting-edge graphics and challenging flight controls. I believe Jet Fighter III was one of the last flight simulators I owned that did not have hardware 3D acceleration. It was a fun game, I definitely put a few hours into it, but it was not an exceptional game. It filled a unique niche of the flight sim market, as most military fighter jet games were more of a pure arcade experience.
I owned Jetfighter II which came out in 1990 but didn't play that much because of the game's difficulty. I didn't buy Jetfighter III right when it first came out, but about a year later they released a Jetfighter III Platinum which included additional missions and a t-shirt. Somehow, I still have that t-shirt today. It's one of my oldest video game relics, and probably my oldest shirt too (and it shows.) I liked the shirt because the game's slogan amused me...global peace through deadly force.
Descent is 3D-FPS where the point of view is from within the cockpit of a small craft piloted by the player. You navigate a labyrinth-like mine while fighting enemy robots, and occasionally bosses. The main objective of each level is to find a central reactor, destroy it, and escape the exploding mine. Descent could be played on a LAN or over a dialup modem connection, the latter being what I used to face off against one of my college friends who also loved this game.
Descent is the first game that I can remember playing that had a truly three dimensional gamespace, with six degrees of movement freedom, and a 3D wireframe map. Most games of this era that looked 3D achieved that through clever tricks, and actually had flat-2D maps and enemy sprites. A DOSBox version of Descent was made available for sale on Steam and Good Old Games, but was withdrawn over a legal conflict. I did get a Steam copy before it went away. If not for some problems with modern joystick support, it'd still be a really fun game.
Command & Conquer is a real time strategy (RTS) game pitting the Global Defense Initiative against the enemy Brotherhood of Nod, led by the antagonist "Kane." Gameplay involves constructing a base, deploying resource harvesters, and then building an army of units to assault the enemy base and destroy it. The game takes place in the "Tiberium Universe," with Tiberium being the resource that is gathered to pay for structures and units. Each faction has different units available, with strengths and weaknesses. C&C used live-action cut scenes to develop the "plot" of the campaign.
In addition to the campaign, the game featured four player LAN play which I never tried. Command & Conquer is credited with putting the real time strategy genre on the map. It spawned over a dozen games in its own franchise, in three universes, and inspired scores of other RTS games in the decades since. This was my first RTS, and I immediately fell in love with the mechanics and the C&C franchise. I would have played even more of the original C&C, but the next game, Red Alert, was released less than a year after I started playing.
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.
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.
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.
A-Train is a rail transport and economic simulator, with city-sim elements. It was open-ended with the goal being to develop a profitable rail system and grow the city around it. There are two types of rail transport, materials and passenger. The player must manage the allocation of building materials around the map so that the city can grow, and passenger rail must connect areas of your city for your buildings to remain profitable. Both the player and the AI will construct buildings using available building materials. If the AI was building high-profit buildings, like 40 story skyscrapers, you knew you had missed an opportunity. There is also a stock market simulator built into the game, where the player can invest to try to get even bigger profits.
A-Train was the first rail+economy simulator that I played. It was one of the first games that I purchased for my new PC in 1992. It turned out to be a great game, and would stay my favorite sim until Sim City 3000 in 1999. A-Train spawned a long series of games, some of which were not available in the US. I never owned any of them. There is a modern version, released in 2015, called "A-Train 9, ver. 4.0" which I intend to buy on Steam when the price drops.
Hook is a 1990s-era pinball machine that is themed after the movie by the same name, a take on the Peter Pan story. It had an extremely satisfying spiraling ramp shot and jackpot mechanic. This is a machine that is so well done mechanically that the theme is completely irrelevant to me. I'm not even a fan of the movie or the story, in particular. The lighting, music, and sound effects were exceptional and perfectly integrated into the action on this pin.
I really wish that Data East (the maker of this pin, and other greats like Star Wars) would license their machines for the Pinball Arcade PC software. As it may be the only way I'll ever get to play Hook again. I haven't see one of these machines in 10+ years. Stern, Gottlieb, and Williams are all onboard with getting their tables re-made in the digital realm. There's really no downside. It's not like Data East is ever going to make money off of their Hook machines again any other way.
Wolfenstein 3D, inspired by the 1981 game Castle Wolfenstein, was an adventure through a bunker-like labyrinth controlled by Hitler and a bunch of his Nazi minions. Your goal was to kill them all, and loot their treasure. Wolfenstein 3D was banned in Germany for depicting Nazi symbols. The game was developed by id Software with the intent of creating a simple, fast-paced action game that showcased cutting edge technology and a new direction in game design, namely the 3D first-person perspective. You can play the game in your browser here.
Wolf3D was the genesis of violent, first-person shooters. It also triggered a paradigm shift within the video game industry. 3D was here to stay. Within four years of its release, and three titles from id later, we would see the first 3D hardware accelerators for PCs hit the consumer market. id calls Wolfenstein 3D "the game that started it all," and I don't think they're just bragging.
Total Carnage is a one or two player, dual-joystick, multi-directional shooter and bullet hell. It has a slightly inclined overhead view and scrolls both sideways and vertically. In addition to the two joysticks there is also a button for placing bombs. The game is a first cousin of Smash TV sharing controls, play style, and some weapons. Total Carnage's plot centers around a Middle Eastern tyrant named General Akhboob who is making chemical weapons at his "Baby Milk Factory" -- a reference to current events in the Gulf War at the time. The players, Captain Carnage and Major Mayhem, must defeat Akhboob's mutants and capture and kill him.
This is one of the few games that I've finished, multiple times, in the stand-up arcade cabinet. Smash TV makes my "memorable" list, but not my favorites. Total Carnage takes the fun and addictive mechanics of Smash TV and adds a funny and entertaining campaign, and that's what makes it one of my favorite games. It was also a serious quarter-eater, with not only the campaign to finish but a sufficient number of keys to be collected along the way so that you can enter the "Pleasure Domes" after defeating Akhboob.
Lemmings is a puzzle game where a fixed number of creatures, the lemmings, are released from a starting point and must be guided to an exit to pass the level. The lemmings will follow a simple path, and often die, unless they are re-directed along different routes to the exit. This redirection is accomplished by assigning one of eight different "skills" to specific lemmings. For example, they can become diggers, bridge-layers, parachutists, or simply stand and block other lemmings from passing a certain point. Levels are passed by rescuing a certain percentage of the released lemmings, and sacrificing some of them is almost always necessary.
I first played Lemmings on my friend's Amiga 500, and later bought it for my own PC in 1992. Lemmings became one of the most popular games of all time, being ported to over 20 platforms. It's among the best, if not the best, puzzle game of the 90s. There were multiple sequels and spinoffs and, today, there are still emulated versions that can play in your web browser. The game's developer, DMA Design, would go on to create the Grand Theft Auto series of games, through GTA3.
Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi was a space combat simulator and action game, and drops the player into a first-person view inside the cockpit of a fighter spacecraft. The game's plot centers around an interstellar conflict sometime in the mid 2600s between the Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi, a race of cat-looking beings from the Kilrah Empire. A disgraced Terran pilot must find evidence of a new, secret Kilrathi cloaking device and ultimately stop a strike against Earth itself.
This game was the first space-flight-sim type of game that I played, and I loved it. The combat was fun, the missions were challenging, and the story and graphics were state-of-the-art for the early 90s. I got this game soon after getting a new 40MHz 386 in late 1991, and my cousin Hank was out visiting for his spring break. We played the game all the way through over the course of a couple days, barely stopping to eat or do anything else. I remember our parents forcing us to turn the PC off and go to bed. My fond memories of Wing Commander 2 are a big factor in why I crowdfunded Star Citizen, an ambitious game by the same creator. That has yet to pay off.
In APB the player takes on the role of a patrol officer tasked with ticketing speeders, honkers, litterers, and helping stranded motorists. A target reticle leads the police car at a speed-dependent distance and tickets are issued by activating your siren when the offender is within the reticle. You must reach a quota of various offender-types by the end of the "day" with extra time awarded for consuming donuts. There is also a secondary mission to apprehend a list of APB suspects, and beat confessions out of them back at the station. Siren-off collisions and missed quotas result in demerits which end your game.
The arcade version of APB had high-res graphics and allowed the player to sit and use a steering wheel + gas pedal to control the police cruiser, with buttons to activate the siren and shoot. I played a fair amount of arcade APB once it made it into freeplay arcades. It was too difficult to play on quarters...there was even a mechanic where you could drive through a store and upgrade your car and weapons. The Atari Lynx version, albeit with much degraded graphics, was a decent port and it ended up being the version that I played the most.
California Games was a sports game collection with different "events" that you could participate in. Basically, it was three or four mini-games all on one cartridge, themed as summertime games. You could surf a perpetual wave, race BMX bikes, or play hacky sack. I think there was also a half-pipe skateboarding game but I didn't play much of that. California Games made good use of the Lynx's 16 bit power and color display, and is one of my all time favorite sports games.
California Games had a wide release across multiple platforms starting in 1987. I believe it was released for the Lynx around 1991, which is when I got the system. This was one of the first games that I got for the Lynx and quickly became one of my favorites. At first I only played the surfing, which was the most fun and easiest to learn, but later moved on to the hacky-sack and BMX which turned out to be just as enjoyable.
Klax could be described as a cross between Tetris and Bejeweled. It's an arcade style puzzle game where colored tiles fall down a conveyor toward the play area and have to be caught by a platform which can be moved left and right by the player. The platform stacks up to five tiles, first-in-last-out. The player can dump a tile out of the stack into one of five bins, each which can hold a stack of five tiles for a total play area capacity of 25 tiles. Tiles are eliminated, and points awarded, when they form stacks or rows of the same color with certain configurations being special goals. Each level has a goal, or quota that must be reached before the player drops too many tiles or fills all 25 slots.
Klax was first released as an arcade standup machine in 1989, and was ported to the Lynx in 1990. Klax was one of my go-to games for long car trips with my parents. It was one of those games that I enjoyed finding in an arcade, after I had gotten decent on my hand-held. Despite the graphics capabilities of the Lynx, the arcade version still looked a lot better.
Populous was the original "god game." You play the role of a deity who must raise and lower the ground for his people, leveling it so that their homes can grow from small huts to castles. The higher quality homes they build, the more they reproduce, and that means more people to pray to you. The prayers of your population charge up your god-powers, which you can unleash on the opponent player. You can curse his lands with earthquakes, swamps, and volcanoes. If you are an angry god, and your people built on high ground, you can bring a great flood upon the whole map. You can also knight powerful leaders who slaughter the enemy and burn his villages. Or you can declare outright Armageddon, a final battle between the sum power of your people and the enemy's.
Despite its age, Populous is still available through EA's Origin distribution service. I still fire it up every other year or so and play a battle. It's simple and fun, and takes about five seconds to install. It's the DOS-EGA version though, which was inferior to the original Amiga game with its better sound effects and graphics. This game caused me to purchase the first mouse, an RS232 "serial mouse" from Radio Shack, that I ever owned.
Also known under its full name "Ivan Ironman Stewart's Super Off Road," later shortened to just "Super Off Road" was an arcade game identifiable by its signature standing cabinet with three steering wheels at arm level and three gas pedals at foot level. You and up to two other racers controlled trucks racing around indoor off-road tracks, from an overhead view. As long as you beat the silver truck (Ironman) you proceeded to the next level. Between levels players could spend their prize purses on upgrading their truck, with transmission, tires, engine, and nitro boosts. The console had a button next to each steering wheel that spent one nitro boost each time it was pressed, rocketing your truck forward. Nitros and money drops would appear randomly on the track and you could pick them up by running over them.
I really liked how the upgrades you purchased carried over from race to race, as it gave an extra feeling of progress rather than just progressing to the next track. The game was still designed to eat quarters, though, with the Ironman truck getting some serious rubber-band boost to catch up to you. The tracks were well designed and fun, and had 3D aspects (jumps, hills, criss-crosses) that worked well with the overhead view. Using nitro at just the right moment, you could get some serious air and rocket past opponents at the last second to win. I never owned any of the console versions of this game, as I considered the cabinet's experience too integral to the game's fun.
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.
Life Force is a scrolling arcade shooter spinoff of Gradius, but with vertical scrolling phases in addition to horizontal. Originally released in Japan under the name "Salamander," it was modified and ported to the NES as Life Force. One or two players fly spacecraft into a series of alien realms battling waves of enemy craft as well as the level's geography. Each level ends in a boss fight. Your ship can gather a variety of powerups, some of which are tiered.
Life Force was another notoriously difficult game that was virtually impossible to finish without the Konami code. Dying and losing a huge set of powerups made later levels and bosses almost impassible. The game was still quite fun, and popular in our house, as my brother and I could both play simultaneously. Life Force was the closest the NES ever got to recreating the feel of an arcade standup that I really liked called Darius, by game maker Taito.
Bionic Commando is a platformer for the NES, but the player is unable to jump. Instead you use your bionic arm to grapple to grab points and ascend or swing. The game features a nonlinear mission map, offering a choice to the player of which area to helicopter into. There was a loadout mechanic prior to entering a zone/level, during which you could equip gear and weapons you had earned.
The game was originally released in Japan with the enemies being a Neo Nazi army led by a revived Hitler, but some of the imagery was changed for the international release. This game was immensely popular when I was in high school, and almost all of my friends had it. The grappling arm was a unique mechanic at the time, and the rest of the game was well designed around it.
You take on the role of "Solid Snake," an operative charged with infiltrating a mercenary state and destroying a weapon of mass destruction known as Metal Gear. During the mission you acquire an array of powerful weaponry, but there is a heavy stealth component to the game. The game had a sharp learning curve because you started completely unarmed, aided only by advice from your allies on your radio. You rely entirely on stealth to avoid the guards and their dogs, until you start finding weapons.
Metal Gear for the NES was a port from a system available only in Japan, and is supposedly inferior to the original in many ways. I had no idea at the time, and I thought it was a great game. It was good enough to spawn a series of games that is still going to this day. It also had some fantastic Engrish. "I feel asleep!"
Operation Thunderbolt was an arcade shooter that had two optical, uzi-style gun controllers mounted side-by-side on the game cabinet, aimed at the screen. The guns vibrated when fired to simulate recoil. It allowed two player simultaneous play, with each player being susceptible to projectiles on their side of the monitor. The game had side scrolling levels, and forward scrolling, fake-3D levels. Enemies that appeared had to be shot before they fired on you, but you could also shoot down their larger projectiles. Items like ammunition could also be "collected" by shooting them. The guns had a thumb switch for firing a screen-clearing rocket launcher as well. The final mission was to enter a hijacked airliner and kill the hijackers allowing your escape.
Operation Thunderbolt is one of just a few standup arcade games that I finished on the actual arcade machine. I was on a family trip, stuck at a conference on a college campus, but found a restaurant nearby with a game room. It took me a few days of daily play, and two or three rolls of quarters, to finally finish the game without killing hostages or the airline pilot at the end. This game was the successor to Operation Wolf, which I enjoyed but was much more difficult and quarter-hungry than Thunderbolt. It was also the last optical-gun game that I'd ever really "get into."
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.
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."
Arkanoid was an 80s take on the brick-busting breakout games of the 70s. It expanded on the concept with different types of bricks, and powerups that the player can grab to enhance the properties of the paddle or the ball itself. It's remarkable that such a simple and old game concept could be revived with such success. The reception of Arkanoid and its popularity was a testament of how well Taito pulled it off. The powerups were well designed and really added another dimension to the play. The levels were clever and numerous, and notoriously difficult.
Arkanoid started as a standup machine in the arcade, and I did play it there, but I logged most of my time behind the paddle on the NES. The game actually came with its own controller. The Vaus, named after the "ship," was a special paddle with a fire button and a twisting knob that allowed for both fine and large, nonlinear movements. That controller became a rather expensive collector's item as the NES aged. In the late 90s I wrote my own simplified clone of Arkanoid in C++ for the X Window System, recreating the first few levels from memory.
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.
Infiltrator combines a light helicopter simulation with ground-based missions. The player first flies on an entered heading into enemy territory, and is confronted by enemy aircraft. Based on responses to hails from the enemy, the player either proceeds uninhibited or must engage the enemy in combat. After landing behind enemy lines using the chopper's whisper mode, the player uses stealth to sneak around an enemy base gathering evidence. The ultimate goal is to destroy the enemy base with explosives. After the ground missions, the player re-enters the helicopter and flies a shorter mission back to home base.
Infiltrator was one of the best games I had for the 8088 PC my family had, our first home computer. The game had color CGA graphics, but I was playing on a 9-inch green monitor. It was a little intimidating at first, being much more multi-faceted than the games I was used to. It was also a fairly difficult game, and the first I ever played that used a stealth mechanic, as opposed to just shooting all the bad guys. Here is an Infiltrator retrospective that I found that includes an interview with the game's creator, Chris Gray.
Ultimate Wizard is a platformer with puzzle elements in which you control a wizard who must navigate levels made of bricks, ladders, ropes and staircases. Enemies and hazards abound, as you try to obtain the level's key and then reach the keyhole. Your character also has a limited number of spell-uses which invoke a special shot or power, such as freeze, fireball, invisibility, enchant or disintegrate. There are also treasures that can be picked up for bonus points.
Ultimate Wizard is the only C64 game that I played a significant amount of, as I never owned a C64. My friend Jimmy had one, and when he got this game we killed a lot of time playing it and making our own levels. It was one of our favorites specifically because it included a level editor. One of the games memorable features was that each new level would "materialize" on your screen, with the different block types in the game having sounds that were played as they were drawn.
Mario and Luigi must rescue the princess from Bowser who holds her hostage in one of his castles. Super Mario Bros. is the quintessential run-and-jump, side-scrolling platformer, and was the best selling Nintendo game for three decades. It spawned a series of over 30 titles, and has been ported to almost all of Nintendo's consoles. It's the most ubiquitous video game of all time, and if you haven't played it you've been living in a cave. Scratch that, I bet Bin Laden even played Super Mario. I don't know where you've been living if you've never played. I've played it twice in the last year by accident; as in I had no intention of playing it, but it was just available to play where I happened to be.
The game has a large number of interesting enemies with different mechanics. It has diverse level design with secret areas and warp zones that allow the player to move skip levels. These are all keys to a platformer's replayability and longevity, and Super Mario did them expertly. I played Super Mario 2, 3, and Super Mario World for the SNES, but those games all run together in my head. Collectively, they were as good as the original.
Lode runner is a non-scrolling platformer with no jumping that combines puzzle-solving with action. Play takes place on levels that consist of brick platforms and ladders. The player can dig into the brick to his left or right, to a depth the height of the player, and enemy guards patrolling the level can fall into these holes. Holes with a guard trapped in them are passable by the player. The player must gather all treasure and escape to the top of the screen to pass the level. It is possible to enter no-win or trap situations which require aborting a level and losing a life.
I was never able to copy Lode Runner for my friends, even with my version of Copy II PC. I didn't understand it at the time, but the game had a custom filesystem and was self-booting, completely bypassing DOS. It could only be run by booting the computer with the disk in the drive. This was the first video game that I owned that had a level editor, and it blew my mind that you could create your own levels for a game. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I spent hours making my own levels...none of which were very good, but it was a lot of fun.
MS Flight Simulator started as a series of mail order, wireframe programs for early computers like the TRS-80 and the Apple II. Microsoft eventually bought the rights to port it to IBM compatibles and released it in 1982. Thus began the longest running, and most iconic flight-sim series ever. Meigs Field in Chicago will forever be known as "that airstrip where you started in the original Flight Simulator." If I had to guess, I'd bet 90% of in-game hours worldwide were spent flying around, and eventually crashing, somewhere in downtown Chicago. I've smashed into the Hancock Center enough times to end up on a watchlist.
This was one of the first "games" my family got for our PC. It was also my first piece of Microsoft software that wasn't DOS. I had my fill of it, and was not very interested in the series going forward. I did buy Microsoft Flight Simulator X when it came out in 2006, which had state of the art photo texturing and 3D acceleration. It also included jumbo jets in its catalog of flyable airplanes. MS Flight Simulator X was the last title to bear the series name. Microsoft released a spinoff successor, Microsoft Flight, in 2012. I never played it. Hopefully the recent developments in VR technology will rekindle interest in flight simulators.
You control Pitfall Harry as he explores a jungle in search of treasure, avoiding obstacles and creatures that are trying to kill you or steal your points. The character can run, jump, swing on vines, and climb ladders. Pitfall's iconic mechanic is hopping across a lake on the heads of crocodiles while their mouths are closed. The player can descend into the lower half of the screen representing an underground passage where Harry has to leap over scorpions. The game is time-limited and life-limited.
Pitfall was the first game that gave me the thrill of "what will be on the next screen." Seeing a treasure (gold, silver, diamond rings, bags of money) appear was exciting. I don't consider it a side-scrolling game, as it doesn't scroll, but some people say it's the start of the genre. It was one of the first video games designed for a single play to take up to 20 minutes. A commercial success, Pitfall spawned several sequels across multiple consoles.
River Raid is an overhead-view, vertical scrolling shooter in which the player controls an airplane racing up a river destroying enemy assets. There is also a fuel system, where the plane will crash if it runs out of fuel. It can be replenished by flying over a red and white striped fuel tank. Like all the best 2600 games, River Raid is a simple concept executed very well to make for an addictive and fun experience.
The game has some interesting history that I was unaware of as a kid. River Raid was the first game ever to be banned in Germany by the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons, citing it as a "paramilitaristic education" with aggressive and destructive elements. River Raid was also one of the first games to have procedurally generated terrain. Although the terrain is randomly generated, the same seed is always used making the game world identical between plays.
A strangely familiar brass lantern is lying on the ground. The three Zork titles are "interactive fiction" games, known more commonly as text adventure games. You embark on a journey of treasure hunting and monster slaying, all described to you in text on your computer screen. You solve puzzles and navigate the world by entering basic real-language commands at a prompt. It's like Myst without any graphics. Not familiar with Myst? Think Zork with graphics. Being ~12 years old, I was highly skeptical of a text video game at first, but quickly learned to love the concept and the world of Zork.
Zork II was the first text adventure game I played, and I don't remember how I ended up owning part two first, but I ended up playing it many times. I got the original Zork like a year later, and loved it as well. My memory of the overall plot of Zork I is better, but my memory of individual puzzles is better for Zork II. I only played about half of Zork III and never finished it, not finding it as captivating as its predecessors. In the late 1990s I wrote a short text-adventure game in C++ when I was bored at work, drawing heavily on the themes and techniques of Zork.
Adventure is an open-world fantasy game where the player must defeat three dragons, explore three castles, navigate mazes, and recover a chalice. Certain areas of the world can only be navigated with the help of specific items found during exploration. The castles require matching color keys, a sword is needed to defeat dragons, and a portable bridge allows passage across certain obstacles. The player can only carry one item at a time and must remember where he left items when swapping them out. There is also a mischievous bat that can steal items and move them around the world. Adventure is immediately recognizable by its beyond-rudimentary graphics -- the player is a mere square that moves around the screen.
Adventure was inspired by a text-adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure, which I never played. Despite underwhelming graphics, Adventure had groundbreaking game play. Its mechanics were far different from the dominant arcade-style designs of the time. I don't recall when I first saw Adventure, but I know I never owned a cartridge. I borrowed it from one of my friends, but played the hell out of it before giving it back.
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