Based on my initial criteria, there are a LOT of games that make it into consideration. I want some way of organizing them sensibly, so that I can explain not just what games make the list, but why. To that end, I’ve got the following categories, to help me filter games:
- Enduring Classics
- Medium Changers
- Genre Pinnacles
- Right Place, Right Time
- Honorable Mentions
- Why Didn’t I Include…
The first four cover games that I think make the cut for “best games of all time”, the latter two are for things that are close, or aren’t eligible for inclusion for one reason or another. I’ll be doing each one, day by day.
Next up, the “Medium-Changers”. These games have left a long and lasting impact on video games as a medium, often in surprisingly varied ways, and across genres. Many of them have enabled entirely new genres, or are still the seminal work in their genre. Some proved that innovation is worthwhile, and drove others to follow their lead, broadening and expanding the industry. Many of these games have since been iterated and improved on, but they all have had a lasting impact on the medium.
I’m going to start with the biggest one.
Super Mario 64
If I were to drop the plural entirely from the title of this series, Super Mario 64 would be one of the top contenders for me to write about. It is a game so good, so polished, and so varied and finely crafted that virtually that entire console generation was spent trying to catch up, and largely failing. Super Mario 64 is enormous, inventing a console control scheme that has stood the test of time (at a time when EVERYONE was trying to come up with how to control games in 3D), and was still more varied and more technically innovative than almost anything that’s come since. To surpass Mario 64, an entire genre of third-person action platformers have had to attack it in the two places it’s weakest: its art (amazing for the time) and its narrative (look, it’s a mario game). Games like Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, The Last of Us, Splinter Cell, Hitman, and even Dark Souls have their roots in Super Mario 64; there are design threads that begin there and stretch on.
Mario 64 taught us to play games in 3D. It wasn’t the first 3D platformer, but it was the first with controls that made intuitive sense, and worked. It introduced the idea of a camera you can control, while still giving you a good look at your surroundings. It taught us to move and look around with both hands, a design that has had a massive, lasting impact on controller design ever since and started to bridge the gap between console and PC, once viewed as an uncrossable chasm. Through all of that, it was also a polished, nonlinear game with tons of replayability, an amount of content considered huge even 20 years later, and a variety of gameplay types that all worked shockingly well without feeling like minigames. I could go on, but the game speaks for itself. Someone, somewhere, sold their soul so that Mario 64 could exist, and it was actually a pretty good deal.
Super Mario Kart
Continuing with the Mario theme. This is the SNES Mariokart, although I looked long and hard at Mariokart 64. Here’s why I picked Super Mario Kart: it’s the game that suggested that racing could be silly, and that it could still be a strong, deep game underneath. It’s the game that taught us to look beyond our initial expectations of a fairly well-understood genre (racing games) to see the potential. It wasn’t the first kart-racer, nor the first car combat game, but it’s the first to combine the two into a game that contained elements of both but was unlike either. It opened the door for a ton of variation and blending of genres, in a way that hadn’t been previously considered outside of the smallest of niches.
Super Mario Kart started the weakening of the boundary between “serious” and “casual” games, a process that continues decades later, but was previously very codified– the game looked simple and cartoony, but could become brutally difficult. It was one of the first home party games, despite only supporting 2 players at a time, and its tracks are still copied nearly perfectly into the latest releases. Super Mario Kart caused a generation of designers to stop and think “hm, what if…” and then go out and make their own insane genre mash-ups. We have long since left the era of codified genres in video games, but one of the first strikes to chip at that barrier was Super Mario Kart.
This is another game that speaks for itself. Largely credited with being the first FPS, Doom is actually second to Wolfenstein 3D, but is in many ways the far more relevant game. Doom is a game about level design, and encounter design, things that had been somewhat haphazard previously. The big thing Doom added was multiplayer, following up Street Fighter II’s foray into simultaneous head-to-head multiplayer with a group of people, all battling it out in an arena. If Wolfenstein 3D was a prototype, Doom is the full release.
Doom is also seeing relevance again for mobile developers, as its “pseudo-3D” nature works surprisingly well with mobile devices. Mobile games are starting to look back at Doom for both input and design concepts, as it’s almost uniquely suited for the platform.
Final Fantasy Tactics
This is another game that kicked off a genre. Riding the coattails of Super Mario Kart, Final Fantasy Tactics asks what might happen if two very detailed, very different genres were blended into one. Offering deep, varied gameplay, clever encounter design, and an excellent story and visuals to boot, Final Fantasy Tactics was one of the first major console turn-based strategy games, and the most accessible. It offered a largely nonlinear approach and a wide variety of options, with each mission’s results making often significant differences in the later ones. Strategy games on consoles had struggled prior to Final Fantasy Tactics, which provided a solid footing for that control scheme, while the big RTSes battled it out on the PC.
Furthermore, unlike its predecessors and contemporaries, Final Fantasy Tactics has become the model for narratively-driven strategy games, adding a personal touch to what had previously been dominated by tanks, mecha, and faceless groups of soldiers. Perhaps most telling, it’s one of the games on this list that is still entirely legitimately fun and fresh-feeling even now.
World of Warcraft
Shocker, I know. The MMORPG would not be anything like it is today without World of Warcraft. With an enduring art style, tight gameplay mechanics, cleverly designed and iterated-upon systems, and its influence in the massive shift in how MMOs were viewed before and since, there’s no denying that WoW is one of the best games ever made. Like it or hate it, its influence is undeniable. There are a lot of things that WoW has done, and its current relevance can’t be disputed, but there’s a big thing that puts it on this list: polish.
Prior to WoW, MMORPGs were a hyper-niche market, with 100,000 players being a resounding success and buggy, laggy games often being the norm. Performance and stability was not what you came to the genre for– I remember spending hours trying desperately to get more than a handful of frames per second from any number of early MMOs. WoW changed all that. The game worked. It felt fluid, it felt responsive, it felt good. A lot of this was smoke and mirrors, but it was clever smoke and mirrors, and it raised the bar of quality for MMOs much higher than it had been previously, while increasing the market by orders of magnitude. If it has a fatal flaw, it’s that it’s been too successful, and has so thoroughly drowned out competition in the market that the overall market is starting to shrink. Not many media can claim that level of success.
Grand Theft Auto III
Grand Theft Auto III is a game about wandering around playing it. It took the big, open-world concepts seen mostly in slow-paced RPGs and amped up the action and the pacing, providing a visceral, exciting sandbox to play in. Five years after Super Mario 64, the third-person action genre came up with its first spinoff that matched the scale of its progenitor. The game had a bit of everything: subversive black humor, lots of things to do, multiple interlocking systems, and many, many little personal touches and tiny details that made it a blast to play.
Like Grand Theft Auto III, Morrowind took a look at the expansive, do-anything world concept and took it in a different direction. Rather than making the world bigger and broader, Morrowind crammed it full of detail. The amount of meticulous detail in the game is absurd– individual coins can be picked up from a spilled purse, shopkeepers often have the items they’re selling you hanging on a rack behind them, and you have the freedom to run around doing anything you like. Unlike GTA, however, everything you do in Morrowind is potentially meaningful. Kill a random shopkeeper? They’re dead. Not coming back. No more buying and selling for you in that shop. Steal something? The guards might come and find you.
In addition to all of that, Morrowind took the swords-and-sorcery fantasy world and turned it on its head, providing a delightfully weird, atypical setting to romp around in, far different from the classic fare and all the more refreshing for it.
For years, first-person shooters lived on the PC. They were immensely popular, and by 1996 they were already being modded into fantastic, bizarre playgrounds. The complexity and variety of the 3D shooter on the PC was impressive, and prior to 1997 offerings on home consoles were anemic at best. Enter Goldeneye. Goldeneye offered a shooter on a console that made sense. It provided a model for a console FPS that would be copied for years, and opened the doors of the popular but inaccessible genre to a much wider market.
On top of all of that, it was a movie tie-in game that didn’t suck, and offered quite a lot of replayability and interesting level constraints, pulling from the (at the time) very modern approach of adding additional objectives as the difficulty level rose, which was just starting to show up in mission-based games at that time.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (series)
I include the entire series here, because while no single game makes the cut, the series as a whole is worth mentioning. Two things put Tony Hawk on this list: alternative (non-team, non-racing) sports games and spectator gaming. Tony Hawk was a game that sparked a whole lot of interesting, varied sports games beyond the common-at-the-time team ball sports and racing titles. Previously, sports games that didn’t involve balls or cars still involved racing, and the idea of doing “tricks” was a bonus, mostly a way of taunting other players or showing off. THPS took the concept of showing off and turned it all the way up– the game is entirely about showing off as impressively as possible, and it’s fun and addicting as a result.
The other thing that Tony Hawk really pushed was the idea of having other people watch you as you did cool things. While many other games were showing off their head-to-head multiplayer prowess, Tony Hawk returned to the high score method, specifically because it WAS a game about showing off, and having an audience was the entire point. In a lot of ways, Tony Hawk is the nascent, living-room precursor to e-sports, where highly skilled players show off for an audience.
Pure puzzle games were rare by 2007. They were often mixed with other genres, and there wasn’t a lot of innovation. Towers of Hanoi, Lights Out, and block-pushing puzzles were about all you’d see in AAA games, and pure puzzle games were relegated to internet flash games or mobile devices. While many of them were good (Lumines, Meteos, Peggle, Bejeweled), they were light, simple, and disposable. Portal was different. Portal offered a fiendish set of puzzles in a high-fidelity game, and blended that with a brilliant narrative and a compelling cast of characters (all four of them). It’s a puzzle game sold on the quality of its voice acting, which should make for a moment’s pause.
In addition, it sparked the indie development scene in a way very few other things had– small, well-produced games became a lot more viable, and initial criticisms that Portal was “too short” were followed up by “shut up, play it, seriously”. For me, Portal was the first game I bought at release that I felt like I paid too little for, and that’s before considering the two other games I got in the same box.
This game is almost an honorable mention. I’m maybe trading a little bit of my own integrity to put it on the list. However. Thief is a product of the experimental era of late 90’s / early 2000’s FPSes, alongside greats like System Shock, Deus Ex, and Morrowind. It just barely meets my criteria– it’s launched sequels, it was remade once, but it’s (at this point) pretty dated and kind of hard to play. Its legacy makes up for that. Prior to Thief, “stealth” in games was pretty much exclusively “don’t let the bad guys see you”.
Thief took that a step further, providing degrees of shadows for you to hide in, and making your sounds and movements important. It wasn’t just about not being seen, it was the whole package– not being seen, not being heard, and not being caught. Thief rarely ended the game on you if you were seen, but you really didn’t want to be seen. It was perhaps the first FPS that made you weaker than virtually every enemy in the game. While you could fight, you really, REALLY didn’t want to. This changed the dynamic immensely, and Thief is a game about perception and planning, not twitch reflexes. It basically defined the stealth action game, and it’s only relatively recently (with Assassin’s Creed) that the paradigm it developed has branched out in any major sort of way.
It is probably my personal favorite game of all time (and not just because it’s one of the first non-final-fantasy steampunk games), which gives it that last little nudge up onto the list proper rather than as an honorable mention. It’s me pandering to my own tastes a bit (I didn’t love and in some cases didn’t even play some of the other games on this list), but whatever, this is my blog, mleeeh!