Friday, December 25, 2009

Going BIG: My favorite games of the decade

This is a quick personal reflection on the ten games (well, nine games and one series of games) I found the most meaningful and memorable over the past ten years.

SSX: I start here not because this is the least of all the games on this list, but because it's the first. It was very early indeed in this decade when I stepped into a may even have still been a Software Etc...and saw a PS2 demo kiosk showing off SSX. I was sold. With one glance, it seemed clear that the power of the PlayStation 2 was going to enable games to deliver bigger thrills than any console before it. How apt that the development studio for this game was called EA Sports BIG. The PS2 was the first new console of the decade, and SSX was its glorious herald, a speedy, stylish, adrenaline-drenched snowboarding game for the new era. It's certainly true that SSX 2 and 3 improved on the original in some respects, but when I think of SSX, it's that first glimpse of Snowdream that I remember most, the voice of Rahzel mocking and praising me as I boosted my way down the slopes.

Halo: Some of the very best gaming moments I had this decade were spent with friends crowded around my modest television, the screen split four ways as we assault-rifled and pistol-sniped each other endlessly. Halo 2 and 3 took the multiplayer online in a big way, but the best Halo times of all for me were those early days on Hang 'em High.

Burnout 3: What an exciting innovation this game was, building on existing arcade racing game conventions but making crashing and running your competitors off the road a spectacular, visceral part of the gameplay. I consider this the original Xbox's ultimate Xbox Live title. For several months, some friends and I ritually played this on an almost-daily basis,while games these days are unlikely to see consistent online play from us for more than a few weeks. It was also, for me, the first game in which custom soundtracks were an essential feature. I still can't hear certain Death Cab for Cutie songs without them conjuring up images of Burnout 3's environments.

Ninja Gaiden (Black): My favorite skill-based, challenging action game of the decade. When Ninja Gaiden first came out, I rented it and found it difficult to a fault. It was frustrating, not fun. Then the bargain-priced Black came out and I decided to give it another chance. I hit the same wall I had before but kept pressing on and somehow, at a certain point, something clicked, and I just naturally found myself getting better at the game. That sense of just feeling my skills improve, and the results of it--being able to effortlessly slice enemies to pieces (and look awesome doing it) who had previously made mincemeat out of me--was incredibly rewarding.

Metal Gear Solid 4: It's goofy and messy and totally absurd, and I admire the hell out of it. I think it's an inspired conclusion to this totally crazy series, and for all its flaws, I love the fact that it is so clearly Kojima's uncompromised vision. He may be the first auteur of games, and I think the series would have been far less interesting if it was made by committee and some of Kojima's crazier, more self-indulgent impulses had been reined in. It somehow creates a thoroughly satisfying conclusion that ties up all the loose ends, and it unforgettably pits the hero and villain against each other in a climactic fistfight that's also a brilliant summation of the entire series. Masterful.

Grand Theft Auto IV: I Heart Liberty City. Moral choice was a fun gimmick in a lot of games over the past ten years, but many of those games presented those choices in such extreme black and white terms. Grand Theft Auto IV was the first game in which I felt legitimately troubled by some of the choices I had to make, the first game in which pulling a trigger and taking a life often felt impactful and irrevocable. The writing is far superior to what you find in most games, with complex, damaged characters who, for all their flaws, are often trying their best to make a go of it in this ugly world. The cutscenes feature terrific subtlety and are willing to take their time to just observe the characters. For me, its themes of culture, cIass and consequences really work. It ain't The Wire, but for my money it's far and away the best crime story, and the best story of any kind, I've encountered in a game. The downloadable stories released this year, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, have kept the party going in style, adding exciting new gameplay elements and continuing to challenge our notions of who and what a game can be about. The Ballad of Gay Tony also features the most gorgeous menu music I've ever heard in a game.

"I keep on walkin'..."

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door: Mario has starred in many exceptional RPGs throughout the past ten years. This is the absolute best of the bunch. It's charming, inventive, humorous, and even oddly poignant. I don't mind telling you that I got a bit choked up at the end of this tale of goombas and koopas. An absolute delight from start to finish.

The Rock Band series: When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic air guitarist, desk drummer, and sing-along-er. But these are all private, slightly embarrassing expressions of the emotions a song might conjure up in me. One of the biggest, most important innovations in games of this decade is the way that the music peripheral games have taken those private expressions and made them a shared experience. Performing songs with friends in a game like this is an absolute joy, and a totally valid and new way for people to experience music together. In the Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero battle, the Rock Band games are the clear winner for me. The atmosphere and the song lists deliver just want I want in my fantasy fulfillment, and the Guitar Hero games feel a bit crass and soulless by comparison.

And now, my two favorite games of the decade. I can't choose between them.

Super Mario Galaxy and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Super Mario Galaxy is as close as any game has come to perfection for me this decade. It's an absolutely incredible achievement, feeling both like a natural extension of the series' roots, and a totally fresh, at times exhilaratingly innovative experience. The level designs are nothing short of brilliant, and the music, visuals and gameplay frequently combined to foster a sense of ebullient joy in me akin to what I might feel at the most inspired moments of a great Pixar or Miyazaki film.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, by contrast, does not quite approach perfection. Instead, it's a sprawling, audacious, flawed but utterly incredible game. The story is not the serious tale of revenge or forgiveness that you find in GTA IV, but a fever dream of West Coast culture and styIe. The plot lacks focus, but the cast of characters is memorable, and the outstanding voice work (JAMES WOODS!) helps tremendously. And while the story is messy, the setting is unforgettable. I love it all, from the ghetto where CJ begins to the mansions in the hills. I love the small towns and the beaches. I love the huge bridges and the airplane graveyards. It understands Los Angeles hip-hop culture in the mid-90s, and its climax rings true in echoing some of the rage that fueled the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

I can't separate the fact that I've lived in LA for many years from my feelings for this game. Standing in the cul-de-sac where CJ's house is located, I can almost feel the warm Santa Ana winds. But the reason I rank it above GTA IV as one of the absolute best of the decade is not just that its setting is more personally resonant for me. It's also that I simply think it's a bit more fun. For me, this is the best entry overall in what I consider the definitive game series of the decade.


jervo said...

Great post. I'm so with you on SSX, it's not even funny.

umopapisdnpuaq said...

You make a great point that Burnout 3 had an unending supply of joy that kept people playing for years, nevermind months. Something about the game brought together a wonderful community.

I was on last night, the last night. I was able to record most of it too for posterity and here is the final road rage event and the ending itself.

I've got quite a few online gameplay clips (with voice chat) already on my channel and a lot more to come if you ever feel like reminiscing.