In Retrospect: My Top Ten Games of All-Time

I’ve always lacked a certain level of self-awareness, and that seemed to show up more when I did top-10s than at any other point. Nothing makes that more obvious than thinking I was clever when I called my random top-10 posts “Venn’s Ten” with all the pride of a clueless writer with no, well, self-awareness. So here we have a chance to redeem myself, looking back at what I ranked as my top 10 favorite games of all time, circa August of 2012.

I had a few simple rules that I went through when I did this ranking, which I’ll go ahead and quote here:

  • Only one game for a series
  • A series with major changes to the games cannot be ranked as a series
    • Rock Band has no major changes, so it can be
  • Console games are a-okay

And, well, that was it. So, without delaying my constant need to shit on something people enjoy (even if it is myself!), here’s my 7-years-later retrospective of what I thought the pinnacle of gaming was in 2012!

Honorable Mentions

MLB 2K Baseball. My direct quote was “these are very, very bad games,” and that’s something that still holds up as true. The series died just a year after I wrote that, and it was probably for the best. They were bad games that only got the mention they did because they were the only option for a PC-centric baseball game. And, well, they still are. Dead as they might be, nothing new has come along just yet. Out of the Park Baseball has scratched my itch for baseball for the most part, but mashin’ dongs on PC has never been more disappointingly lacking.

Mario. Yeah, I put the series in my honorable mentions. At the time, I said “I could never, ever pick a single Mario [game] to put into my list,” and I think that might still be true. Given the effect the series had on gaming as a whole, I couldn’t leave it off completely, but there was no singular game that I felt could stand out in such a way that it was worth putting onto the list on its own.

Rock Band. The Honorable Mentions really were my way of dumping series into the list without having to pick a single game. I said back then that it was the most fun music/rhythm game I had played, and I think that’s still true. Though nowadays I mostly play guitar for real and don’t have the room for an entire setup for Rock Band. I think, given the fact that the fad died and I haven’t even thought of picking it up in years, this would be the first thing I’d drop completely from a new list.

Resident Evil 4. Huh, I really don’t know what I was thinking. I guess because at the time, Resident Evil 5 was the new one, and 6 seemed to be more of the same, so I held 4 onto a pedestal for the inanity of it. I played through about half of it sometime a few years ago, but I think while it did a lot of great things, it’s something else that didn’t stand the test of time quite like I expected.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This is still my favorite Zelda game to this day. At least, main-line. But the fact that I said this was in the outer top-10 and didn’t make the cut over some of the things that did– holy shit, I hate myself right now. And it’s going to get a whole lot worse.

The Top 10

10. League of Legends. You talk about games not standing the test of time. You talk about games that you really, really don’t like any more. You talk about growing out of video games. You talk about your tastes evolving. And you bump one of the greatest action-adventure games ever off your top-10 list. For this. In my defense, I played it almost exclusively with friends, this as at the height of my interest, and I was putting ten hours a week into it, minimum. It was a playtime requirement. And something that I would never, ever put onto a list again.

The biggest evolution I’ve noticed as I started to look at this list is that I have no interest in competitive games any more, for better or for worse. And something that constantly evolves and expects consistent investment is something I don’t think I could ever put onto a top-10 list. I grew to appreciate stories and the unique ability video games had as a medium to tell them. And League of Legends doesn’t do that at all. Nothing I like about video games today is represented in League of Legends, and the fact that I put it on a top-10 list at any point in my life says a lot about how much I’ve evolved (and grown up, I suppose) as a person.

9. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This was the game that got me into the new age of shooters properly. Before the 4th fish, I sometimes messed around in the old Battlefield games, occasionally dicked about in something like Counter Strike, but I took Modern Warfare seriously. For better or for worse, both then and now I can agree that it brought shooters into the modern age, with all the trappings of experience, unlocking weapons, and evolving your playstyle as you gained new abilities.

On the other hand, there were no microtransactions and one free map pack, so everything was great on that front. I don’t think any modern military shooters have done anything particularly better than the first Modern Warfare did, and the genre has, for the most part, stagnated with only gimmicks to evolve it. Eventually some of the games got vehicles in them, for whatever that’s worth? Either way, you can’t deny the massive effect that this game had on gaming as a whole.

8. Pokemon: Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald (3rd Generation). This is a tough one. I think with the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t put this here, but at the time it definitely felt like the series that had the most effect on me. If anyone generation of Pokemon games would make it onto a top 10 list for me today, it’d definitely be 5 (Black and White, etc.). In the end, I respected the choice to have everything be new and not rely on old designs or ideas a lot more than I thought I would when I originally wrote this list. What impressed me as a kid about the 3rd generation of Pokemon (in retrospect, anyway) isn’t nearly as impressive as it seemed. On the other hand, I still put quite a bit of time into the 5th generation games, which consistently impress with their respect to have difficulty and not pull their punches consistently.

7. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Nope. Definitely wouldn’t put it onto a top 10 list today. I haven’t played it since I wrote the original list and, though I have fond memories, the game looks like ass-cheese today and I can’t imagine much in the way of gameplay holding up too well. Looking back, I’d say the only thing that truly stuck with me was the Miami-oozing setting and campy story. If I ever do a proper top-10 again, it might get a single line outside of the honorable mentions, but the series as a whole isn’t nearly as interesting to me as it was back then.

6. Final Fantasy IV. I can’t deny how revolutionary the game was when it came out, with this rich world and compelling characters in an era where stories were drawn from the most basic of tropes, but just because it’s a game I grew up playing doesn’t mean it’s one of the best ever. I replayed the PSP remake a few years ago, and the game still holds up pretty well mechanically, but I don’t think I’d rank it in the top 5 for Final Fantasies, even. It was impressive for its time, but comparing it to later entries, it just has too much of the deck stacked against it.

FF4 didn’t have enough interesting mechanics, what was then considered cutting edge and intense is now a case of “Seinfeld Is Unfunny,” thanks to when it came out and how much it inspired. This quote from the previously-linked TVTropes page describes Final Fantasy 4 better than I ever could:

The sad irony? It wasn’t old or overdone when they did it, because they were the first ones to do it. But the things it created were so brilliant and popular, they became woven into the fabric of that [game]’s genre.

5. The Legend of Dragoon. Off with the nostalgia goggles. I replayed the opening parts of this game as recently as a few weeks ago, and while this game had a massive story and spanned 4 ridiculously-wordy (and sometimes badly-translated) discs, it was – again – a part of my childhood. And I don’t think that’s good enough to still make a top-10 list if I’m discussing what I believe to be the best games ever made.

While the Addition combat system was certainly fun, it didn’t make up for the fact that there wasn’t much more to it. A lot of the battles were same-y, some mechanics were obtuse or down-right annoying (looking at you, incredibly limited inventory size) and made you feel like the game’s mechanics were working against you as much as the villains. I’m sorry, Legend of Dragoon, you impressed me as a kid, but in retrospect, you were a fairly generic yet massive JRPG with a couple of strange gimmicks that only stuck out because you were mine.

4. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I… don’t know. I think this game is incredible. I think the sequel is better. But the sequel has bigger problems and is only fixed with a major mod/overhaul. So… I think maybe both of them sharing a high spot? The first game is essentially a traditional Star Wars good/evil jedi/sith story with a few twists, but told very well. It respects the setting, forces you to make decisions, and has that great level of party interactivity that Bioware has (or was, anyway?) always been known for.

The sequel, on the other hand, respects you as a player to read into everything, pay attention, and come to your own decisions which are much more ‘shades of gray’ than being an overt tale of good and evil. And I have fond memories of both, and both stories still hold up, with the combat being something between serviceable and enjoyable, depending on how much you enjoy old tabletop-based systems. So I think at this point, I really did seem to find my footing, because I don’t think I could find more than a handful of games I’d put above this incredible set of stories.

3. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat. When I did my original list, this was only a couple of years old, so I had no idea if it would be able to survive the test of time. But here we are, 10 years after release, and it still oozes with style, looks pretty great, and the drab color palette hides just about anything that would be considered graphically disappointing in 2019.

I don’t think I’d place it quite as high as 3rd any more, but it’s still a fun game and mods make it infinitely replayable. The fact that it has something resembling a story, but it takes a back seat to the setting, which drives the entire plot forward, is almost unheard of in shooters and still sticks out in my mind as an incredibly unique way to, well, have a game be. Especially one that’s so focused on shooting, action, and interaction with the environment.

2. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. #1. It’s been seven years. I still have it installed. I still keep a fresh install to base mods off of, and I still find new things. As Skyrim has been re-released 800 times and I’ve desperately tried to enjoy it for what it is, I constantly have to compare it to Morrowind, which does just about everything better. The setting is fantastical, the lack of voiced dialog means that you can actually have conversations and learn from people, and everything has this sense of complete whimsy that Bethesda moved away from in every game since.

You were expected to do your best in a world that didn’t care about you. No one thought you were destined to be a savior of anything, everyone just treated you like another asshole foreigner with a chip on their shoulder. Put in the work and become powerful. Don’t and you won’t. Fly like superman? Sure, craft a spell that lets you. Hope you’ve got your magical abilities together to do so. Want to be the best swordsman who never misses? Get to work and you can. But it’s not going to baby you for any of it. Morrowind never once pulled its punches, expected you to do your own research into the dialog, the quest book, and read. You find out where something is, then you follow the directions to get there. Enjoy the world, enjoy the journey.

Nothing exemplifies Morrowind’s strengths more than the old phrase “it’s about the journey, not the destination,” because that’s exactly what Morrowind does to you. In later entries, you were expected to following a compass that would tell you exactly where to go. You could instantly teleport to any location you had already been to. You only explored new places because a quest sent you there. It was rare that you would stumble upon something surprising. In Morrowind? You get directions to a cave, you fuck up while you’re following them, you go up the wrong path, and now bandits that are far stronger than you are going to destroy you until you can manage to reload and run quick enough to escape. Morrowind wanted you to feel like you were a part of the world, not that the world revolved around you. And it did an incredible fucking job of it.

It was a sandbox game with a million stories, most of which were great. It had a massive cast of people, most of which were memorable. Every major questline had give and take, you weren’t going to be able to do everything, or see everything, in a single game. It was the closest a video game has ever come to emulating the tabletop roleplaying experience, and it’s a masterpiece that deserves every bit of praise it’s ever received.

1. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. This is a game that actually… fell off a bit for me. Not a lot. But when it came out, I gave it praise beyond praise, I constantly gushed over how much I loved every aspect of it, and I think most of it is still true, but I think it’s also an example of a sequel diminishing a former game. Which, I guess, is a really rare example. In fact, it’s something that I can’t come up with much more in the realm of, well, examples. I don’t think I can speak more of the second Witcher game without referring to the third, so I suppose that’s where this stands.

Compared to the first, the second had combat that was much more approachable. The first was consistently mentioned to be clunky and barely serviceable unless you spent considerable time mastering it. But the jump from the second to the third was more subtle. The same basic concepts survived, but were streamlined. And that can be said of much of the third game, for better and worse.

Without this devolving into a complete comparison of the evolution of the Witcher series (there’s an idea…), what I can say is thus: The Witcher 3 is a better game. Being open world, it has much lower valleys, but given the larger budget and grandiose scale, the peaks climb a bit higher, as well. 2, being a more linear experience, gave the developers more narrative control, which kept the story much tighter. But what 3 had that 2 didn’t was pretty simple, and twofold: Expansion packs, and an ending. It seems obvious, but let me explain!

The Wild Hunt, as a story, was the weakest part of the Witcher series, especially if you only consider the context of the game series’ narrative. Ciri hasn’t really existed, and now she’s all that matters. But when the stakes were lowered, the story got better. 2 built everything up to the final confrontations in Loc Muinne, while 3 bounced around an open world where you constantly returned to other places, for the good and bad of it (mostly good, but mundane travel with no reason felt… mundane, sometimes). Meanwhile, the expansions were designed to be much tighter experiences with less narrative room to breathe. At no point did it feel like there was extensive required ‘grind time’ for side stories in the main story, given the immediacy of it, but that wasn’t the case or the requirement in either expansion.

Again, without going into extreme detail on a cross examination of the two Witcher games, I think that, with the inclusion of the two expansions, Heart of Stone and Blood and Wine, Witcher 3 would top 2, and easily be within my top 5 – probably second only to Morrowind, honestly – games of all time.

Posted by Robert Wall