In the world of digital entertainment, some games have transcended the boundaries and managed to create artistic, intelligent and immersive experiences that cannot be matched. I thought I’d sit down and think about the computer games that have had the biggest impact – on me and the gaming world. Here are my top 20 games of all time.
20. Worms: Armageddon (PC – 1999)
Probably the most innovative multiplayer strategy game ever made. The Worms series throws teams of up to 8 cut-throat military worms in turn-based combat with one other across a fully-destructible 2-D landscape. The key to success lay in innovative uses of its plethora of weapons, and using your limited supply of these to best effect. I can’t think of any other game that lets you get tens of players in one room and on one computer laughing so hard, whilst actually having to think strategically to pull off a victory. And boy, did you feel like you earned it after a 30 minute slog.
The single player missions weren’t a walk in the park either. They were fiendishly difficult, but so well crafted, that you would endure the pain just to baseball bat that final worm off the screen. Priceless.
All of this was topped off by immaculate presentation. Although it was a 2d game released at a time when 3d was the cool new way, it perfected the form it was in. The music was atmospheric and well composed, the sound effects and voice samples were hilarious, and the graphics were colourful and cutesy, yet ‘gory’ at the same time. All of this, tied together with a blend of northern English humour, made Worms: Armageddon the unique game that it is.
19. Street Fighter II Turbo (SNES – 1992)
The most iconic beat-em-up game of all time, bar none. Street Fighter II was the most exciting game at the time. The graphics were mind-blowing (although the characters suffered from the famous 3-toe complex). The music stuck in your mind for hours after you put the game down. The idea of 2 fighters facing off was hardly far-fetched, but it was Capcom’s execution of it that was so groundbreaking. Characters had special moves that defied reality (the Hadouken is probably as famous as the game itself).
But the real key to this game is the skill and timing that was needed to pull off the moves. Rather than having different buttons for different attacks, Street Fighter introduced various D-pad combinations to be pressed quickly to perform most of the more impressive moves. Hell, the game was so legendary that even the button combinations for the moves have carried themselves over to future beat-em-ups (most notably the Tekken series).
Strangely, and maybe it was because I was quite young at the time, the 4 bosses scared the lights out of me. Which is why I picked Turbo over the regular Street Fighter II – you can actually play as these monstrosities!
18. Donkey Kong Country (SNES – 1994)
Arrgh, someone’s stolen my bananas! Donkey Kong Country truly pushed the boundaries of the available technology like no other game has done, and everyone was left awe-struck at its beauty when it was released.
More than that though, this is the second best platformer I’ve ever played, purely based on design alone (read on to find the first). The variety of worlds and level ideas make this game a treat every second that you play it. Not at one stage do you feel that you are being made to do the same things over again.
The depth of this game was bolstered by the fact that there were 2 (yes 2) main characters – Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong. The game was filled with situations where the faster and lighter Diddy needed to be used to get out of situations, and vice versa with Donkey. Plus, your friend could control the other character – making for an amazing 2 player co-operative experience.
17. Soul Blade/Soul Edge (Playstation – 1997)
Everybody knows the Soul Calibur series of beat-em-ups these days, but it was Soul Blade (Soul Edge in Japan) that kicked it all off. It still totally trumps its successors. Yes, even the Tekken series.
If Street Fighter II is the granddaddy of all beat-em-ups, then Soul Blade is the rebellious grandchild. It introduced weapons to the mix, and with them, a whole new dimension in gameplay. Every character uses a specific type of weapon which has particular attributes. If you block too much, your weapon will break, and you’re stuffed.
New weapons can be unlocked for each character by playing through the Edge Master Mode. This was far from just an arcade mode where you fight all the other characters and some bosses. Each fight had a stipulation – you might be poisoned, or you might have to knock your opponent out of the ring to win, for example. The story linked together each character’s desire to obtain the ultimate weapon – the Soul Edge. This is probably the only fighting game to date that actually has an interesting and plausible story for all its characters. And there are multiple endings for each character.
Everything in this game is finely balanced. Every weapon and every character has a strength and a weakness which can be exploited. The moves and combos are tremendously satisfying to pull off. Soul Blade set the bar for how all beat-em-ups should be. In my opinion, it has yet to be raised.
16. Prince of Persia (PC – 1989)
Jordan Mechner – you are a genius. Prince of Persia added a new twist to platform games. Rather than a linear path from left to right, you were presented with fiendishly difficult puzzles incorporating booby traps, tactical sword-fighting and various other ingenious twists (I won’t spoil them if you haven’t played it). All this whilst under a strict 60 minute time limit to complete the entire game. Did I mention this game was hard?
The other thing that Prince of Persia gave to the world was the beginning of motion capture. Infamously, Jordan Mechner filmed his brother and traced the frames of the film to give the Prince extremely smooth and natural looking movements – the likes of which had never been seen before. Of course, the success of the game resulted in a 3d revival many years later by UbiSoft, but not one of those sequels does this game justice.
15. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (Playstation – 1999)
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was not only a successful game, it actually popularised the real sport of skateboarding. I thought ‘misty’ was a weather condition before this game. Then along came the sequel, and boy was it good.
Pro Skater 2 had the perfect balance of real skateboarding and exaggerated moves and locations to make you feel like you were larger than life and dare to attempt the impossible. The single player mode was endless – so many objectives to meet and tricks to perform – and they were enjoyable to the point where you would attempt them over and over until you got them right.
Added to this was the skate-park editor and the fun multiplayer party modes. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was not just a good skating game, it was an amazing game regardless of genre. Like most of the other games I’ve mentioned, the series only went downhill from here. I pray, Activision, please make another Tony Hawk’s game like this. And dispose of your plastic peripherals.
14. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield (PC – 2003)
At a time when first-person shooters were emerging as the most popular genre of game, the Rainbow Six series completely redefined what was to be expected. The Dooms and Quakes of the world focused on fast-paced run and gun, with the player and NPCs (non-playable characters) having a predefined health meter.
Rainbow Six changed all this. You are in control of a squad of men (or many squads) – and have to pre-plan your way through the map carefully to achieve your objective – just as it would work in reality. You must select your team members and which weapons and armour each of them will carry. Lighter armour, for example, is quieter and allows you to move quicker, but has the obvious drawback of being weak protectively. Certain characters are specialists with certain weapons – you must choose carefully depending on the requirement in that level. If you get shot, you will be maimed at the very least. There are no second chances. If a member of the team dies, they are gone. For the rest of the single player campaign. That’s right.
This third installment of the series is by far the best. The game is unforgivingly realistic. The levels are vast and will challenge you, but have a lot of re-playability as you will want to play around with different strategies to find the best and most enjoyable path to glory. The graphics do the gameplay justice, perhaps unlike earlier versions of Rainbow Six, as the game is based on Unreal Engine 2. Unfortunately, the later games (I’m talking about you, Rainbow Six: Vegas) sold themselves out to make the game less tactically oriented, and more like a Call of Duty experience. If you want to enjoy tactical shooting in its purest form, go for Rainbow Six 3.
13. Unreal Tournament (PC – 1999)
Back to the aforementioned run and gun first person shooters then, and Unreal Tournament is the best of the lot. The first FPS (first-person shooter) to be focused solely on multiplayer, Unreal Tournament was a breakthrough in the way developers thought about FPSs. At the same time, Quake III: Arena wanted to do the same thing, but as you can see from the futures of each of the franchises, it is pretty clear to see that the Unreal Tournament series wiped the floor with the opposition, and for good reason.
The level design is top notch (and no future UT game levels have matched the original ones for quality), the graphics were superb for the time, and importantly for a game of this nature, the AI of the computer controlled ‘bots’ was superb.
Unreal Tournament had something more to give to the gaming world – the Unreal Engine. Many mods were created by users, new levels were made. But also, whole games were made, and continue to be made, using the latest incarnation of the engine (heard of Gears of War by any chance?). The original UT is an icon in gaming history, and from a pure gameplay point of view, is still the best game of its type and in the series.
12. Mario Kart 64 (Nintendo 64 – 1997)
Somewhat expectedly, there’s a Mario game in here. But it’s not a platformer.
Nintendo know how to make multiplayer games for everyone to play, and the Nintendo 64 was the perfect system for them, at least until the Wii showed up. Mario Kart 64 was the 3d adaptation of the SNES’s 2d Super Mario Kart. Not only could you race against your friends, there were all manner of weapons and power-ups to aid you on your way and leave them kicking and screaming whilst you sail past them.
The later Mario Kart games dumbed down the gameplay mechanics a lot – making the cars very easy to handle, and automating the powerslide technique which all but removed the element of driving skill from the game.
11. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (PC – 2006)
Oblivion is a special game. I was never much of an RPG (role-playing game) fan, though I did enjoy fantasy adventures. Oblivion changed me, by blurring the lines between RPG, a first-person action game and a Grand Theft Auto like free-roaming sandbox experience.
The world in Oblivion is huge. Massive. I wouldn’t be surprised if it took you a good hour to walk from one end to the other. Longer, as you’ll probably stop along the way to admire the scenery, pick up some plants to make potions with and slash a vicious mountain bear. Immersive is an understatement.
Once you are done with the main quest, there are literally hundreds of other missions and quests that will keep you occupied, as well as randomly exploring to find hidden weapons and items. You will not just spend hours on this game. Days, weeks, months, maybe even years could go by. And the world is simply breathtaking. Looky:
Ooh, here come the top 10… are you excited?
10. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 (PC – 2000)
The abundance of RTS (real-time strategy) games is probably second only to FPS games. Because they are a dime a dozen these days, it’s not easy to find one that can keep you engaged for a very long time.
Red Alert 2 is the pinnacle of strategy games. It was the last 2d Command and Conquer title, and it completely nailed all that C&C was about. The campaigns for both the Soviet and Allied teams are varied and fun, as well as challenging. The live action cut-scene acting is cheesy and terrible, as per all C&C games, but it gives the game a down-to-earth ‘I can laugh at myself’ feel to it.
The game absolutely shines online, though. This was the first game that I played online with any seriousness, and there was nothing more satisfying than teaming up with a couple of friends to take out multiple Brutal difficulty enemies.
As with any game, the right balance is the key. Other RTSs (including the more recent Command and Conquer titles) drown the player in options and unit types, to the point where you end up spending more time making sense of everything than actually enjoying the game. Red Alert 2 is both deep enough and straightforward enough for you to be able to pick up and play and have a blast, whilst allowing you to experiment with more advanced tactics the more you play.
9. Rayman (Playstation – 1995)
Forget Sonic and Mario – Rayman is the greatest platform game of all time. All the ingredients are there: excellent music (and not excellent in a cheesy Mario sorta way, the music is compositionally very good), some of the best 2d graphics that exist, responsive controls and unmatched level design.
You are tasked with saving your ‘electoon’ buddies who are trapped in cages – 6 of them in every level. Believe me, it requires a lot of lateral thinking to find some of them, after which, you will be extremely smug. The game took me and my best mate over a year to complete, and we had to use a cheat on the final boss. They sure don’t make games as challenging as they used to. Rayman is a game that makes you say ‘wow’ every level. And there’s not many that can do that.
8. Portal (PC – 2007)
The concept of Portal is something of a kid’s fantasy – “Hey, imagine if there was a gun that could shoot portals in things, so that you can go into one and come out of the other!” As cool as it sounds, it takes a whole lot of thought to make the idea into something that works.
Portal took this wild concept and turned it into a completely original game. At first glance it is a puzzle game – you must use your portal firing skills and some Mensa-level thought processes to move onto the next level. But Portal is like an orange – peeling and revealing itself to you as you get deeper and deeper into it. The story and ending – driven by Ellen McLain’s voice acting – has become something of a cult classic already, and the game is barely 2 years old. When a game makes its gun turrets and plastic cubes so famous that they have their own action figures, it’s time to pop the champagne. And it’s one liner – ‘the cake is a lie’ – is up there with ‘I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse’.
It is this – the presentation – that makes Portal an instant classic. The game is very minimalist, but when something is there, it is there for a reason and has a massive impact on you. The only criticism of the game is that it is too short – but you are left feeling thrilled and surprised every second you play it. You can’t ask for more than that. Your life is incomplete until you have completed Portal.
7. TimeSplitters 2 (Playstation 2 – 2002)
TimeSplitters 2 is the most fun 4 people can have in a room with their clothes on. In fact, it’s the most fun 8 people can have when you have 2 PS2s and 2 TVs. Believe me, I’ve been there. The TimeSplitters series succeeds the classic N64 shooters GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark (it’s made by the same chaps), and builds upon the base that they established.
Before you read on and complain that neither GoldenEye and Perfect Dark are on the list, let me explain why. GoldenEye pioneered the console FPS – the single player campaign was brilliant, and the 4 player split-screen multiplayer was revolutionary. However, the multiplayer lacked game modes and stages. It only allowed for human players, no bots, so the scale of the multiplayer games were much smaller.
Perfect Dark followed up with better graphics, clever weapons and a plethora of multiplayer modes and challenges, including well programmed bots. Unfortunately, the single player campaign paled in comparison to GoldenEye’s missions. Some of the spark of GoldenEye was lost somewhere down the line.
TS2 manages to trump Perfect Dark by having even more multiplayer modes, better levels, better weapons, more characters – basically more everything. There are quite literally hundreds of challenges to complete – it will take you an age to even get close to accomplishing everything that the game has to offer. You can even create your own levels using the map maker. Trust me – you’ll never run out of things to do.
Although the story is disengaging, the playability of the single player missions trumps that of GoldenEye. Each is set in a different time period, with appropriately themed weapons and backdrops. Plus, you can play all of them in split-screen co-op mode with someone special.
Finally, like Worms, TimeSplitters 2 coats everything with some trademark British tongue-in-cheek humour. TimeSplitters 2 is a Jack of all trades – and masters them all too.
6. Final Fantasy VII (Playstation – 1997)
Remember when I said I never cared that much for RPGs? The fact that Final Fantasy VII is this high up on my list is a testament to just how good the game is.
I like a good story – one that makes you feel strongly about every character, whether it is love or hate. I want to be part of an epic adventure in a vast world and feel as thought I’m part of something huge. Final Fantasy VII draws you into its magical world, and yet there is a gritty realism to everything. Each character, each town has its flaws, its dark side. I actually wanted to kill one of the characters because of the pain they caused. It’s that engaging. Another reason as to why the story reigns supreme is because of the imagination it requires. The written dialogue is superb, but since there are no voices in the game, and since the sprites are somewhat crude, there will be parts of the game that will be remembered differently by each person.
Sure, the characters look like voodoo dolls, but the pre-rendered photo-realistic backgrounds were like nothing anyone had seen at the time. I actually only played FFVII for the first time a couple of months ago, and I was still taken back.
Gameplay wise, it’s the standard FF battle system: wait, select attack, attack, wait, select attack etc… But the Materia system – where you can swap magic between characters in your party – makes the battles a lot more interesting than they sound.
It’s not surprising that FFVII is considered by many to be the best RPG of all time. I felt a sense of triumph and yet sadness after the game was complete. The music was etched in my brain (mostly because it becomes quite repetitive after the 35 hours or so it will take you to complete the game, but also because it was easy to associate certain pieces with specific events). I felt like I was saying goodbye to my friends. FFVII will steal your heart.
5. Half Life 2 (PC – 2004)
Valve have knack for creating characters and scenarios that people relate to, so much so, that they become ingrained in pop culture. They did it with Counter-Strike, they did it with Portal and with Team Fortress 2. But most of all, they managed it with Half-Life 2, by creating the best single-player, story-driven FPS ever.
Still don’t believe how cool Half-Life is? Guess who was voted GameSpot’s all-time greatest video game hero? Nope, not Mario or Sonic or anything like that. It’s the guy you see on the box art above – Gordon Freeman. Despite the fact that you never see him once in the game, because you are him and the game never strays from the first-person. And he never speaks. Not once.
It is because of this that you always feel fully immersed in the game. Although the game is linear, situations play themselves out in front of you, and it is down to you exactly what you do in these moments. And there are a lot of them, because HL2 is a long game, which is very unusual in the world of FPSs these days.
Like Unreal Tournament, HL2 also gave a game engine to the world – Source. Source meant that HL2 was graphically miles ahead of anything else at the time. It was one of the first engines to incorporate a realistic physics system, that meant objects obeyed the laws of physics as they do in reality. This allowed the developers to put in some clever puzzles, which meant you had to make use of the environment in real-time, rather than finding a single, pre-programmed solution.
As a result of this, they managed to give HL2 one of the coolest weapons in gaming history – the Gravity Gun. At first glance, it’s just something that allows you to pick up and throw objects, but the game does an excellent job of giving you interesting and varied applications for it – from stacking crates to get over a wall to flinging enemy guards into each other later in the game.
Half-Life 2 is not just a game. It is art. You get a sense of quality after a few minutes of playing that you never get with the Halos and Killzones of the gaming world.
4. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Playstation 2 – 2004)
I’m sure you know enough about GTA already. GTA III on the PS2 was revolutionary – it translated the free-roaming gameplay from previous games in the series into a full 3d experience. And it changed the face of gaming. GTA IV vastly improved the dynamics of the game by introducing a far superior game engine, and far superior controls. Yet, it is San Andreas that remains the GTA game of choice.
SA is the largest GTA game by far. The amount there is to do eclipses any other GTA game. And the key point is that there is variety in all of these things. The environment is varied – there are out of town villages and farmlands as well as the bustling metropolitan cities. I’d sometimes get a dirt-bike and go riding into the countryside in the sunset, finding myself doing doughnuts on a mountainside and parachuting off the top, just for the hell of it.
Sure, there are some big annoyances. The shooting controls are appalling, to the extent that the longer shooting missions become a real chore. The RPG ‘building up your attributes’ nonsense really doesn’t have a place in the world of GTA. And yet, all of this can easily be forgotten when you drive up to your own airport and take a plane for a spin. Yes, San Andreas is completely over the top, but that’s what makes it so unpredictable and timeless.
3. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Playstation 2 – 2004)
To quote the title track – ‘what a thrill!’. I don’t even know where to begin with MGS3. If Jordan Mechner is a genius, Hideo Kojima is Einstein. I’d have put all 4 MGS games on this list if I hadn’t forced myself not to.
As you may have gathered, I’m a sucker for a deep and engaging storyline. The Metal Gear Solid series sucks you in like a Dyson vacuum (before it gets clogged up). Everything about the story kicks ass. One of the main characters is a middle aged female soldier. How many games, or even films, can boast of such a character? You get to find out a lot of the history behind the Solid Snake we all know and love from MGS. The game is full of witty dialogue and 1960s references. The voice acting is superb and the direction would make Hollywood jealous. The cutscenes flow in with the game and the soundtrack (the best game soundtrack ever without a doubt) adds to the feeling that you are playing a film rather than watching a game.
The game returns to the roots of the old 1980s Metal Gear games, in that it is set in the jungle. Even though the PS2 hardware was a limiting factor, MGS3 made the most of what it had. In order to make it look as palatable as it did, the frame rate had to be halved to 30fps, making the game a lot less smooth than MGS2.
MGS3 gives you the illusion of freedom. Gone is the radar, and in comes the camouflage system, which means that automatically, the game becomes more stealth-oriented as you need to concentrate hard to deceive guards. You also need to eat to keep your stamina up – a novel system that actually works extremely well in practice. This adds a whole new dimension to the game, as you try to catch animals and determine which plants have beneficial effects.
The boss battles are some of the best you will find anywhere – including possibly the best boss battle ever when you face The End. I won’t spoil it for you. And the last moments of the game, followed by the final cutscene will bring a tear to your eye.
But of course, MGS3 would be nothing if the scene hadn’t been set by…
2. Metal Gear Solid (Playstation – 1998)
Shock, horror. I, a self-confessed Metal Gear Solid nut, have rated MGS as number 2 on the list! And no, neither MGS2 or MGS4 are number one! I’ve lost my mind!
Actually, MGS3 was objectively a far superior game to the original Metal Gear Solid. But Metal Gear Solid defined the stealth ‘sneak-em-up’ genre. Hideo Kojima had the concept in his mind since the 80s, but it wasn’t until the PlayStation and 3d graphics came about that he could put it into practice. What we got was a game like no other, an adventure game that was like a film. Where the story flowed seamlessly with the gameplay by using the same gameplay engine to render the cut-scenes, rather than detaching the player by using some fancy FMV sequences for the sake of it.
The one thing that I can’t do that I wish I could is to be able to play MGS for the first time again. The feeling of awe and tension that you get as the plot thickens and twists, as the story unfolds and tricks you, as you get seen for the first time and cause an Alert phase – that feeling will always remain, but will never be as strong as it was the first time. I always felt MGS to be darker than all its successors. It’s a game that haunts me every time I play through it, something that makes it stand out particularly from the rest of the bunch.
This game was so ahead of its time – it pushed the boundaries of the gaming world at the time by transcending what were perceived as limitations of the medium. Just play the Psycho Mantis boss battle for a taste of what I mean.
Boy, all this talk is making me wonder whether Metal Gear Solid should have been number 1. But no, I’ve made the right choice. Read on for the finale.
And the winner is…
1. Deus Ex (PC – 2000)
Deus Ex is another that dared to bend the rules of game design. It introduces the freedom of choice like no other game has ever done. Whilst GTA and Oblivion give you free reign to explore, once you undertake a mission, you generally have one way to get to the end. Deus Ex removes that completely.
Picture this: you need to retrieve a canister from an underground base. You blast your way in through the front entrance, kill anything that crosses your path and bring back the canister.
You need to retrieve a canister from an underground base. You use your hacking ability to disable all cameras and turn the gun turrets on the enemy soldiers. You stroll through the clear road and casually retrieve the canister.
You need to retrieve a canister from an underground base. You talk to some people and give some hobos food. One of the hobos tells you he heard a code. You explore and find that the code opens a hidden door which takes you straight to the canister. You use your electric prod on a guard that gets too close. Don’t worry, you haven’t killed a soul.
You need to retrieve a canister from an underground base. You can use your aqualung augmentation to hold your breath for an inhuman amount of time, swimming in the sewers to bypass all activity, and bring back the canister without anyone batting an eyelid.
You need to retrieve a canister from an underground base. You’d rather chuck a basketball at a dog. And so on… you hopefully get the idea that there are so many ways to achieve your goal – and you can shape your character into being most effective at the method you like best. Deus Ex brings in RPG elements, so that accomplishing certain goals will give you skill points which you can spend on boosting the attributes that you want to. You can be an expert hacker and lockpicker, or Rambo with all the heavy weaponry – whatever suits you. The one thing that the game does encourage you to do is be intelligent. If you don’t, you won’t last 5 minutes.
The story is deep – Metal Gear Solid deep. And because of the open-ended nature of the game, probably 75% of the story and literature that is in the game will be left un-read and un-explored by the average player. In fact, there must be enough material to explore outside the main path of the game to fill multiple novels.
The game is satisfyingly long, spanning so many different scenarios and situations. Some objectives are mandatory, but almost everything will have more than one outcome depending on how you play. And most of your actions have consequences. For example, killing your way to the top may make you some very powerful enemies. Equally, not showing toughness might cause certain characters to lose respect for you.
I haven’t even mentioned the presentation. The graphics were excellent for the time, being based on the Unreal Engine. The music was futuristic and melodic, fitting the mood and atmosphere superbly, if not matching Metal Gear Solid for pure audio quality. The voice acting was forgettable at times, though.
There are 3 different endings to the game, and each will have you questioning your actions and being philosophically challenged. Confucius would find Deus Ex thought provoking.
Hey, the game even seemed to predict that the twin-towers would be destroyed by terrorists. Deus Ex is my number 1 game of all time.