It’s year-end recap season, obviously, and even if the decade isn’t technically over until next year, these are certainly the end of the 00s, which means it’s decade recap season as well. (In case you’re curious, here are my decade recaps of music and books.)
It occurs to me that my personal decade recap of videogames is, in part, a eulogy. I can call up any album I’ve ever owned on my iPod, and I’m already well on my way towards acquiring a similarly era-spanning library on my Kindle, but I’m not entirely sure I could play Crazy Taxi on my HDTV without having to run out and buy an appropriate set of cables; hell, ever since I got the original Xbox back in 2002, my Dreamcast has been sitting in a box in a closet, and right now I’m not sure that I even have my original Xbox anymore. And, of course, whenever I play a PS1 title on my PS3, it takes me a little while to get used to how fuzzy and low-res everything is. When I played Final Fantasy VII earlier this year, I had a very difficult time believing that this was (at the time) the most beautiful game ever made.
The point is, with a shortage of cabinet space and in the absence of backwards compatibility (and/or pirating/hacking), a lot of my favorite games in the first half of the 00s are games that I’m probably never going to be able to play again – and even if I could, I’m not entirely sure that I’d want to. Let’s take FF7 as an example again – I never played it when it originally came out, so I have no original glow of memory to compare it to. But even by today’s JRPG standards – a genre that is incredibly reluctant to evolve in any truly significant way – it’s a bit antiquated. Sure, you can still play it, but it’s missing features that I’ve grown accustomed to. Similarly, an FPS like Quake 2 – one of my personal favorites, a game that I’ve played through numerous times – just feels dated now. Graphics have changed, sure, but so too has storytelling.
Which is a long way of saying that a 10-year recap of videogaming, especially considering the technological advances of this particular decade, is somewhat problematic. Videogames, as a medium (dare I call it an art form?), have evolved almost to the point of being unrecognizable. I now take 1080p, wireless controllers and online voice chat for granted, and I’m more or less ready for digital distribution to be my primary method of acquisition – hell, I’ve already been doing that with Steam on my PC for years. And these are all things that never would have occurred to me 10 years ago as being necessary.
That being said, there’s a nice symmetry for me here. While I was rabid about videogames when I was a little kid (the Atari 2600 era), I wasn’t really agog until my friend bought a PS1 in 1998, with which we played Oddworld and Crash Bandicoot almost every single night. And I didn’t own my own console until December 1999, when my then-girlfriend bought me a Dreamcast as a birthday present. So in many ways, the last 10 years have been all I’ve ever had to go on.
So: please pardon any obvious gaps in the ensuing post. I’m doing my best with what I have.
CONSOLE OF THE DECADE. This is undoubtedly the PS2, and here comes the first aforementioned obvious gap – I never owned one. I loved my Dreamcast fiercely, which took me through the first few years, and when the opportunity arose (on 9/11/2002, as a matter of fact) I opted for the Xbox, specifically because of Munch’s Oddysee. (Really.) But I’m not an idiot. The PS2 still sells upwards of 100K units a month these days, and I’m not above admitting that I’ve considered getting one just so that I could play all the great PS2 games that I missed – FF10, FF12, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, etc. (The recent release of the God of War Collection, however, has sated that need for the time being.)
BEST STORY. I should probably mention here that these categories and their respective winners are of my own personal choosing; I’d originally intended this post to be a larger, collaborative effort between me and some friends, but for whatever reason that kinda fell apart. That being said, there was a considerable amount of debate over certain categories, this being one of them. Fellow SFTC scribe Gred felt that this was Half-Life 2’s category, and I can certainly agree that Valve’s approach to storytelling has always been unique and innovative. That being said, I’ve played all of the Half-Life saga multiple times, from the original game and its expansion packs up through HL2 Episode 2, and I’m not sure I’d ever really be able to articulate what’s going on beyond the basic Humans v. Combine conflict. Ultimately, for me, this category falls between two distinct titles, and I’m giving it to Grand Theft Auto 4. Niko’s story is by turns tragic, hilarious, nihilistic and redemptive, and it features some of the best dialogue and voice acting the medium has ever seen. For once in a GTA game, the story was every bit as impressive as the technology.
FAVORITE “WOW” MOMENT. I could easily write a 1000-word post on this category alone; there’s almost too many to choose from. To be honest, though, a lot of those “wow” moments stem from graphical showcases – pretty much all of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Bioshock and Uncharted 2 would fall into that category. Certainly almost every car crash in every Burnout game has generated an audible “wow”, as well as the first few times I played with Half-Life 2’s gravity gun – and then, similarly, the first few times I played with the Portal gun. There was a part of me that was tempted to give this to GTA3 – not because of any particular bit of mayhem I had caused, but rather that I was able to find a quiet seaside cliff and watch the sun rise over the ocean, and that it was beautiful to see and hear. But there’s really no question that this particular moment goes to the plot twist reveal in Knights of the Old Republic, which is the only time that I’ve ever literally dropped the controller from my hands and had my jaw drop involuntarily. I still get chills when I think about how that went down. I had played as a light-side Jedi the entire time, and I’d really gotten absorbed in the story and the characters, and when it was revealed who I actually was…. wow.
MOST OVERLOOKED/UNDERRATED GAME. It’s funny; when I was putting this post together, this was one of the first categories I came up with, and Voodoo Vince was going to be my winner. It may have been just a shallow platformer, but it had a great visual style and one of the best soundtracks I’d ever heard. But then I remembered Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, and it occurred to me that I can’t logically award this category to the first game that pops into my head. (And while I love it dearly, I never considered Beyond Good & Evil for this category – it was overlooked and underplayed, but it was also (and still is) a critical darling, which O:SW never was.) O:SW was a truly unique first-person shooter in so many ways – the live ammo concept was brilliant, and it took full advantage of the Old West setting. But it also had a great story, a quirky (if somewhat juvenile) sense of humor, and utterly fantastic production values from top to bottom… and almost nobody bought it. It more or less sunk Oddworld Inhabitants as a game developer, and it made EA pretty wary of original IP for a few years.
MOST UBIQUITOUS FEATURE THAT HAS GROWN TIRESOME: Take your pick from the following:
- celebrity voice acting
- Nolan North (great voice actor, but he’s in friggin’ everything)
- light bloom
- cloth physics
- “open world sandbox”
- amnesia in JRPGs
- post-apocalyptic wastelands
- game titles with colons
- the Unreal engine
- Quick-Time Events
- expensive, oversized peripherals with limited usage (i.e., plastic instruments, everything that isn’t the standard Wii remote)
The one that’s starting to grate on me the most, though, is the overuse of moral choices. It was genuinely interesting in KOTOR, but now it feels a bit almost like a cop-out on the part of the developers, freeing them up from having the responsibility to tell an actual story – and considering that most games have dumb stories to begin with, it feels even more lazy. I’m all for branching paths, customization and games that change based on the decisions you make, but more often than not these moral choices are really just “be nice” or “be a jerk”, and then you turn slightly more blue or red, and maybe you’ll get a few new powers, and then at the end you’ll see a slightly different cutscene. I’d like to see games in general improve their storytelling, since it almost always feels like an afterthought, and they can start by having some balls and committing to a plot.
BEST YEAR. This has to go to 2007, doesn’t it? Consider: Mass Effect, Bioshock, Portal (and the Orange Box), Call of Duty 4, Super Mario Galaxy, Halo 3. And that was all more or less in the second half of the year. That’s INSANE. 2008 is pretty close, and 2010 looks to be pretty amazing as well, but those 6 games I listed above alone put 2007 over the edge; I’m sure there’s at least 10 more hidden gems that I’m not recalling.
BEST GAME I NEVER ACTUALLY FINISHED. I first played Grand Theft Auto 3 on my PC; then I bought it as part of the Double Pack for my original Xbox; and then, during a lull, I played it again on my 360 just to see if there was any discernible difference in graphical fidelity. I’ve probably spent more cumulative time with GTA3 than any other game this decade (and if not, it’s certainly pretty close). And yet, after how many hours (probably 150 or so), I’ve still never seen the ending. And I’m probably never going to – as fond as I am of that game, the controls are beyond archaic, now, and the punishment for failing a mission is too severe.
BEST FRANCHISE. Certainly there’s a number of big-name nominees for this – Halo, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, Call of Duty, Gears of War (and some personal favorites like Burnout and Uncharted) – but none of them had the seismic impact that Grand Theft Auto did. GTA changed everything. It might not have invented the concept of non-linear gameplay, but it certainly made it the most fun, and it easily reached the biggest audience. It fundamentally changed not only how we played games, but our expectations of what a game was capable of doing. I’m going to quote Caro here, from our behind-the-scenes discussions – this was actually from her “Biggest ‘Wow’ Moment”:
I’m not sure anything compares to the moment I first took control in GTA3. My jaw literally dropped in amazement. I couldn’t believe it. Never before and never since have I been so aware of experiencing something that was going to change games–and, to some extent, our wider culture–forever. After spending my whole life in games whose environments were ripped from science fiction and fantasy, here was a world that bore a dark resemblance to my own, a grimy, dirty city that really felt alive. Music played on the radio. Rain fell from the sky. I could run over old ladies walking down the street. It was exhilarating. It was extraordinary. It was as if it was something I had always craved, without realizing it.
And now, my FAVORITE GAMES OF THE DECADE, in chronological order.
But first, some HONORABLE MENTIONS:
- Batman: Arkham Asylum. My #2 game of 2009, and one that I can’t wait to play again.
- Crackdown. Orbs, how I love thee.
- Mass Effect. Maybe it wasn’t the true KOTOR sequel I was hoping for, but it was a fully realized sci-fi epic which lived up to its ambitions, elevators be damned.
- Mercenaries 2. Of all the GTA clones, this was the best, and it did a lot of things better than GTA itself did.
- Metal Gear Solid 4. In spite of how completely in(s)ane the story is, the gameplay is legitimately thrilling.
- No One Lives Forever. It’s a shame this never saw a console port; more people might have played it. This game oozed style and was genuinely funny.
- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Yeah, the combat sucks. But everything else about it is glorious.
- Psychonauts. I don’t even mind the Meat Circus, to be honest.
- Skies of Arcadia. Still my favorite JRPG.
- Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. This was the best of the original Xbox games, with graphics that are still jaw-dropping.
- SSX 3. The best snowboarding game ever made, for whatever that might be worth (probably not much), but an exhilarating experience all the same.
- Super Mario Galaxy. I haven’t finished it, but I can’t deny that it’s an incredible experience.
Rayman 2, Dreamcast, 2000. According to Wikipedia, this came out in the Spring of 2000, which means its eligible. I’m going to call it – this is my favorite 3D platformer of all time. It was genuinely charming, which is all the more impressive considering the game featured a lead character with no limbs and a language that was entirely gibberish. It had a save-the-world story but it was told with genuine pathos, and the world you were saving was filled with lush detail and was absolutely joyous to behold. It was easy to pick up, it never got frustrating, and it was expertly paced. Even now, all these years later, I can’t help but smile whenever I think about it… and I get genuinely bummed out when I see what’s become of the franchise. (Not that Raving Rabbids isn’t fun, or whatever, but, I mean… come on.)
Knights of the Old Republic, Xbox, 2003. I’ve already spoken of its plot twist, but the game underneath it is not too shabby, either; this was not only the best Star Wars property since the original trilogy, but it’s one of the best RPGs ever made. It took the concept of a “role playing game” quite literally, which is partly why the aforementioned plot twist hit me so hard – I was thoroughly involved in my character’s development from the get-go, and I never saw it coming. Every character in the game is richly drawn and expertly acted; the worlds you explore are rich with detail. You feel invested. I’m having a hard time remembering just how the combat worked, but it worked well enough that I didn’t ever have a problem with it (unlike, say, Dragon Age). Yeah, the frame rate bogged down every so often, and you couldn’t really look up; but that was besides the point; for 40 hours, I was a Jedi.
Burnout 3, Xbox, 2004. As far as I’m concerned, Burnout 3 changed the driving genre forever. It was faster than anything I’d ever seen; hell, it was the most spectacular game I’d ever seen. It took the main obstacle from other driving games – crashing – and made it an explosive, interactive, integral part of the experience. And the fact that it could be played online… I’ve still never played as much of a game online as I did with Burnout 3.
World of Warcraft, PC, 2004. I wasn’t originally going to include WoW; I’m a little ashamed of it. I lost more hours of my life to WoW than I care to admit; I took sick days from work, I missed band rehearsals, I stopped hanging out with my wife. And I never even hit 60! Let’s move on.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Xbox, 2005. I’ve written too much about GTA in this post alone, so I’ll keep this brief. Each entry in the GTA franchise has been a landmark experience, and what’s truly remarkable is that even though they’re all similarly designed, each one has a unique and distinct personality. If I had to pick one, though, I’d pick San Andreas, which was so stuffed with things to do that they actually scaled back for GTA4.
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Xbox 360, 2006. I’m not entirely sure how much time I spent playing GTA3, but my save file for Oblivion tells me I spent 110 hours with it; I got every Achievement for it and played all the DLC for it. And I still have quests I never finished!
Portal, PC/360, 2007. I wish I had graduated from high school in 2007, just so that I could have used “The cake is a lie” as a yearbook quote. Anyway, I don’t know what to say about Portal that hasn’t been said a hundred times better by a hundred different writers. There was something truly special about this game, and I think that’s why it keeps getting talked about; nobody had ever seen anything like it, and we’re all still waiting to see anything approach it. It took enormous risks in its narrative, and yet it seems so effortless because of how hilarious it is. It slowly taught you how to play it, and then it threw everything out the window and tried to kill you. I can’t possibly imagine what Valve must be going through as it develops the sequel (and you are developing a sequel, right, Valve?); I have absolutely no idea how it can be topped or improved upon.
Bioshock, Xbox 360, 2007. Certainly one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played; the graphics and art design are certainly top-notch but it’s the sound design that really puts this one over the top. “Would you kindly” never quite got the same traction that “The cake is a lie” did, but it certainly resonates deeply with those who were taken by surprise. And count me as one of the many whose belief was firmly suspended for the entire ride; after I finished the game I read a number of articles by smart writers who ripped the game apart for certain plot holes and contrivances. Maybe I’m dumb. But I fell for this game, hard.
Rock Band 2, Xbox 360, 2008. As a musician, I’ve always been a little skeptical about music games; as a NYC resident, storage space is at a premium, and I can’t necessarily justify having plastic instruments lying around my apartment. But as a human being, there are few greater thrills than feeling like you’re playing your favorite song with your best friends. There’s a reason why cover bands still get paid these days; people like hearing their favorite songs. Similarly, there’s a reason why an evite with “Rock Band?” as a subject will get immediate affirmative responses.
Uncharted 2, PS3, 2009. My #1 game of the year, but also just a staggering achievement from top to bottom. If I had known back in 2000 that games could eventually look and play like this, I’m not entirely sure I know how I would have managed to cope with all the bullshit I’d have to play in the interim.