Monday, December 21, 2009

The Best of the 00's - Danny's Best Videogames of the Decade!

Welcome back to my Best of the Decade series. We've covered a lot of ground so far, and now it's time to cover a medium that, over the last ten years, has entered into the same popular conversation as movies and television. It's a digital age, baby, and with that in mind, this series would be woefully incomplete without talking about the best in videogames from the 00's. So press *START* and strap in, because it's game on.


- For better or worse, videogames grew up in the 00's. They grew up right alongside a generation of kids who had been raised on Nintendo and Sega and Sony, and as Gen Y graduated and entered into the pop-cultural mainstream, so too did gaming. And yet, some people still don't get it. They act shocked every time a new game outgrosses blockbuster Hollywood movies, and act surprised when a game console's popularity is the deciding factor in determining which storage medium will be the wave of the future. If not for the unparallelled popularity of the Playstation 2, DVD's might never have taken off like they did. If not for Sony's decision to back Blu-Ray as the medium of choice for its PS3, then who knows how the hi-def wars might have ended. The popularity of online gaming via the XBOX paved the way for the still-to-be-determined future of digital distribution. And for all the hype about the iPhone as a gaming platform, people tend to forget how many tens of millions of units the Nintendo DS has sold since its inception - making it the best-selling game console, by far, of this decade.

As nice as shiny new hardware is though, real gamers know that at the end of the day, it's all about the games. Whenever a new generation of console wars heats up, business analysts and corporate types start predicting who will come out on top and whose console will be the next to bomb. But they're not there, in the trenches, so very often the predictions have little merit. Playing a great videogame can be one of the most powerful and involving media experiences one can have, and in many ways, the rest of the media world is still catching up. Games are where the action is. TV is trying to catch up. Movies are trying to catch up. Games, in the 00's, were already way ahead of the curve.

Are games better now than they used to be? It's hard to say. Gaming is a time-intensive and expensive hobby, and as my friends and I have grown up and gotten jobs, etc., it's harder to invest the kind of time into these things that we did as kids. But what's the trade-off? You could buy a Wii, play a bunch of lame "games" like Wii Fit or Wii Sing or whatever else, and get your daily dose of gaming in bite-sized, "casual"-friendly increments. But that to me isn't where the beating heart of gaming lies. It's in interactive storytelling, immersive adventures, innovative play mechanics, new worlds both realistic and abstract. And that's why we now have this weird dichotomy in the world of games - the whole "hardcore" versus "casual" thing. To me, that's a cheat. The reality is that few of us have the time to play as many games as we'd like, and the truth is that most games today are way too long and complex. But ... even if I can't plow through all the games I'd like to, I still want to be in the know, I still want to be a part of the conversation. I'd rather take three months to traverse through the glorious world of Uncharted, a little bit at a time, than waste time on the latest real-world thing that is now simulated via a Wiimote (seriously, I'm just waiting for "Wii-Potty-Training").

Growing up, there was a canon of games that all of us played. Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Street Fighter. The classics. Nowadays, it's a much more fractured marketplace. Whole genres have sort of walled themselves off to be accessible to only the hardest of the hardcore. Online play has only made things worse. Think you're pretty good at a given game? Go online and test out that theory, and prepare to get pwned by some twelve-year-old in Cheboygan.

And yet, games still have a magic to them that make it a joy to be an enthusiast of the medium. And people are catching on. Haven't played Guitar Hero or Rock Band? Yikes, I'd say you're out of the loop. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Halo, and Resident Evil have become a part of the pop-cultural fabric. Videogames in the 00's aren't just spaceships and knights and soldiers anymore. There's something for everyone. There's still a core gamer demographic, sure. And there's a subculture around games that is one of the most intelligent and passionate of any medium. But slowly, sometimes reluctantly, core gamers have begun to share their medium with mom and dad and even grandma. At the same time, like I said, all of us kids who grew up playing Mario and Zelda ... well, maybe the biggest surprise to many was that most of us never stopped. It proved that games were not a fad, and not just some toy for kids. We were the pioneers, the ones who discovered this great new thing and kept the fire burning.

Games in the 00's covered countless genres - some old, some new, some that nobody could ever have anticipated. There were games with graphics that were unimaginable ten years' prior, and games with mechanics that I never thought I'd see. Controllers rumbled and plastic guitars were the new must-have peripheral. Downloadable levels, characters, and even full games became standard, and new types of smaller-scale games (and old-school classics) thrived thanks to the new online marketplace. Touch-screens and motion controls became standard. Portable gaming surged. First person shooters became bigger and bloodier than ever, and the concept of open-world gaming took off in a big way. Forget Level 1 and Level 2 - here was a whole city to explore and conquer at your leisure. Yep, we've come a long way since Pong.

Gamers reaped the benefits from the corporate warfare for their gaming dollars, as increased competition among the big players forced each to up the ante. Sony dominated much of the decade, but eventually lost ground to Microsoft and Nintendo. The Playstation and PS2 ushered in a new era of 3D gaming. The XBOX 360 brought online competitive play and digital distribution to new levels of popularity, and the Wii saved Nintendo just when it seemed on the verge of collapse, bringing easy-to-play, family-friendly games to the mainstream masses. Sega was the biggest casualty of the decade - despite the Dreamcast system being a fan-favorite, it tanked at retail, forcing Sega to become a software developer only. This led to Sonic and other Sega games appearing on competing platforms, including those of longtime rivals Nintendo and Sony. In related news, thousands of gamers' heads simulteously exploded when they saw Sonic the Hedgehog on Nintendo consoles.

Games are now bigger than ever, and this is only the beginning. It's a fascinating industry, and an incredible medium. I can barely imagine what games will be like in another ten years, but that's what so great about the universe of videogames, there's always something amazing, and often, unexpected, just around the corner.

Now, for my list. Keep in mind, it's impossible for even a dedicated and passionate gamefan to play everything that's out there. Depending on which consoles you've owned, which genres you prefer, your favorites will likely be a bit different than mine. Personally, I'm not a shooter guy. I love action, adventure, old-school platforming, fighters, and the occasional Japanese-style RPG. I love games that stretch the imagination and take you to far-out places. I love great characters and the thrill that comes with helping them navigate through an epic journey. I haven't spent much time with Halo or Gears of War, or Mario Galaxy or Knights of the Old Republic, or Call of Duty. I'm not an MMO player, and I don't ever want to even try playing World of Warcraft, for fear that my life as I know it will instantaneously be sucked away. I haven't, unfortunately, played Ico or Shadow of Colossus. And I am eagerly anticipating diving into Brutal Legend, but haven't gotten around to it yet. And FYI, this list groups multiple entries in a franchise together when appropriate, and separately when one installment towers over others. So here they are - the games that I loved the most in the 00's ...


1. God of War (series)

- The decade's most badass, most awe-inspiring games were, to me, the first two entries in Sony's God of War franchise. From the minute I first took control of the series' vengeance-seeking protagonist, Kratos, it was abundantly clear that GOW was something special. The controls? Spot-on, with a real-time even mechanism that added an extra dosage of drama to big battles. And the combat? Absolutely brutal. Rarely has a game made you feel so in-control as you unleash unholy amounts of pain on your enemies. And those enemies - wow. The boss battles in this game are some of the most impressive ever in gaming, with screen-filling battles and epic encounters aplenty. Everything about the GOW games is simply huge, over-the-top, and downright awesome.. With gigantic worlds to explore, ultra-intense and cinematic combat, fiendish puzzles, and unprecedented graphical prowess, God of War I and II (and Chains of Olympus on the PSP) were the epic adventures of a lifetime, and the upcoming God of War III should only add to the legend.

2. Guitar Hero / Rock Band (series)

- Many of us with little to no musical talent have always dreamed of rock n' roll superstardom, and Guitar Hero brilliantly replicated the experience of being a guitar virtuoso. The gameplay was simple to learn but difficult to master, but the formula was spot-on. Guitar Hero started it, Rock Band perfected it, and in the 00's, a new genre of videogame was born.

3. Resident Evil 4

- The original Resident Evil games on the Playstation were completely revolutionary for their time, virtually creating the "survival horror" genre, and bringing a new level of creepy thrills to gaming. The series then had a bit of a slump, but man oh man, did it come back with a vengeance. Resident Evil 4 completely changed up the series gameplay style, emphasizing faster action. The result was an action-adventure game for the ages, and a new landmark moment for one of gaming's most storied franchises.

4. Uncharted (series)

- When I first got my PS3, the game I was most chomping at the bit to play was Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. A true next-gen, Indiana Jones-style adventure, Uncharted was one of the most cinematic games I'd ever played. Ironic too, that it came out in close proximity to a rather disappointing big-screen Indiana Jones film. It felt like a transitional moment, the moment where games, not movies, were the place to experience the next great blockbuster adventure story. With gorgeous graphics and intense gameplay, Uncharted picked up the ball from the likes of Tomb Raider and ran with it. Uncharted 2, meanwhile, was an even bigger smash - refining the first game's formula to achieve inarguable gaming greatness.

5. Metal Gear Solid (II, III, and IV)

- The first Metal Gear Solid game was a landmark game in the late 90's - never before had a movie-like story been so seamlessly integrated with intense, innovative gameplay and stealth maneuvers. In the 00's, the saga of Solid Snake spiralled into an epic, complex mythology, as series creator Hideo Kojima worked tirelessly to ensure that each new MGS game wasn't just a product release, but an event in and of itself. At times, Kojima's tendency towards storytelling excess would get the better of him, but in the end, the MGS games were fundamentally awesome interactive experiences. Snake? Snake! SNAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!

6. Final Fantasy (IX, X, and XII)

- When it comes to epic role-playing adventure, the Final Fantasy franchise has been synonymous with mind-blowing graphics, operatic, emotional storytelling, and involving, customizable gameplay. In the 00's, Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) released three bonafide epics. FF9 was a throwback of sorts, one final PS1 adventure that was similar in style to the old-school FF games. FFX, the first on the PS2, was a graphically-incredible, next-gen upgrade, and FFXII, an interesting experiment with gameplay and story.

7. Devil May Cry

- When I first played Devil May Cry, I was in awe. One of the first games to truly show off the graphical might of the PS2, DMC was great-looking, but also 100% certified badass. From the wizards at Capcom, this goth action game had you traversing through a gigantic castle disposing of enemies via stylish and deadly combos that had you controlling a veritable ballet of destruction.

8. Ratchet & Clank (series)

- Pure, unabashed fun. That's how I'd describe the Ratchet & Clank games, which take the old-school imagination and wonder of games gone by, pairing classic sensibilities with absolutely stunning graphics. The massive worlds of Ratchet & Clank overflow with artistic awesomeness - the gaming equivalent of the Pixar movies. And the gameplay is just perfection, with ultra-smooth controls, and a variety of crazy weapons and gadgets at your disposal.

9. Grand Theft Auto (series)

- I'm not a huge fan of the GTA aesthetic. When did games become all about emulating true crime and real-life? Games like GTA can make me miss the old days, when games were less gritty and more fantastical, but at the same time, I can't deny that GTA games were not only a ton of fun and ultra-immersive, but also did a ton to advance the kinds of play mechanics and world-structure that we expect out of action games. And while I don't love the wave of lame urban crime games that GTA inspired, I do give this franchise a ton of credit for bringing a new kind of true-to-life genre storytelling to the world of gaming. Definitely *the* pop-culture breakthrough franchise of the decade, in my opinion (Halo notwithstanding).

10. Bioshock

- Like I said, I'm not a huge first-person-shooter fan. But I have to admit that Bioshock transcended the FPS genre to be something much more - a story-based game that sucks you in with intriguing characters, gripping plot twists, and a fascinating world to navigate and explore. The underwater world of Rapture, a would-be utopian society gone awry, is a scary, tension-filled place to play in, and rarely has a game brought its setting to life so fully - with sights, sounds, and backstory creating a living, breathing place.

11. Soul Calibur (series)

- My favorite fighting-game franchise of the 00's, Soul Calibur gives each and every battle a melodramatic fantasy flair. From the over-the-top announcer to the sweeping musical score, everything about this series screams *epic.* Rarely has a fighting franchise made locking swords feel so visceral, with every clang and clash of blades registering in your brain with a resounding "ka-chang!"

12. Castlevania DS (series)

- One of the best games of the 90's, and probably ever, was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the original Playstation. A 2D sidescroller with classic gameplay and a symphonic musical score, SOTN became a huge fan-favorite, and publisher Konami took notice. Taking advantage of the Nintendo DS's 2D prowess, Konami went on to craft three pseudo-sequels on Nintendo's handheld, and each brought something new to the table while still retaining SOTN's unbeatable gameplay and gothic atmospherics.

13. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

- Until the Sands of Time came out, the Prince of Persia franchise was essentially DOA. But the talented folks at Ubisoft crafted a stunning puzzle-action game that not only placed you in beautifully-rendered Arabian environments, but also introduced an innovative time-manipulation mechanic, allowing you to slow down and speed up the action at will. One of the defining action games of the PS2 era.

14. Psychonauts

- Tim Schaefer is one of the rare personalities in gaming whose name is as meaningful when attached to a game as a bigtime movie director's is when releasing their latest blockbuster film. All of Schaefer's games have his trademark sense of quirky humor, his outside-the-box play mechanics, and his amazing sense of storytelling. Psychonauts was no different - an ultra-imaginative trip inside the human brain that felt like you were playing through some great, long-lost ride at Epcot Center, only way funnier and cooler. A bit rough around the edges, sure, but the sheer ambition and inventiveness of Schaefer's games makes each one a must-play.

15. Little Big Planet

- One of the most innovative games of the last few years, LBP mixed classic platforming gameplay with ultra-realistic physics models to create an entrancing experience. The graphics were ultra-sharp and stylish - with the entire world of LBP seemingly a collage of real-world items and materials. The music was catchy, the levels diverse. And the kicker? LBP allowed users to create their own levels, and to share those levels with the larger LBP community. Never before has a platforming game opened itself up in this way, and the result was thousands of cool new levels to play, with more created and shared and enjoyed every day. Awesome!

16. Kingdom Hearts

- Squaresoft and Disney? WTF? What seemed like a crazy clash of styles turned out to be like peanut butter and jelly, and the result was that, somehow, this game reminded many a cynical, jaded gamer what true Disney magic was all about. Seriously, Square's amazing artistry and storytelling made for so many ultra-cool gaming moments, with every beloved Disney character - from Aladdin to Simba to Jack Skelington - introduced with awe-inspiring aplomb. The gameplay grew a bit repetitive at times, but the overall experience of playing through Square's epic take on the Disney universe was one of the best and most mesmerizing of the 00's.

17. Beyond Good and Evil

Another unique title from Ubisoft, this one from noted game designer Michel Ancel. Something I love about games is that they are still a niche enough product, and the core audience is used to enough weirdness, where, sometimes, they can just be completely out-there. Beyond Good and Evil is set in a unique sci-fi world complete with talking animals and evil overlords. And yet, you don't play an action-hero, but a photographer, tasked with documenting all of the nefarious goings-on of the would-be conquerers with your trusty camera. This unique slant on things made for some really cool gameplay, and the overall art and aesthetic of the game world made for a unique and engrossing play-through.

18. Jak & Daxter

- Along with Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter was one of the killer app franchises of the PS2 - a huge platforming adventure from the geniuses at Naughty Dog. The size and scope of the world in the original Jak blew me away. I never dreamed that action games could be this epic when I first played Super Mario Bros. back in the day, and rarely have they been as epic since. While the series faltered a bit in later iterations, and has yet to make the jump to the PS3, the original Jak & Daxter remains one of the all-time classic 3D platformers.

19. SSX Snowboarding

- I still remember the feeling of awe and exhileration when I first popped SSX into my then-brand-spankin'-new PS2. I had *never* seen graphics so smooth, never seen a game so bursting at the seams with color and music and cool-factor. I wouldn't say that I ever truly mastered SSX, but man, it was fun to try. And man, did that snow look good. "Sweeter than candy."

20. Professor Layton and the Curious Village

- Puzzles. Brainteasers. Riddles. Such a simple concept, and yet, rarely have they been so elegantly translated into videogame form. This Nintendo DS title is such a joy to play, from the eye-catching hand-drawn graphics to the soothing music that plays throughout. And man, those puzzles! Frustrating yet rewarding. It's all good though, because Professor Layton makes the whole process utterly infectious.

21. WWE Smackdown (series)

- Let's face it: most of us guys harbor fantasies of stepping inside the squared-circle, hearing the adulation of the frenzied crowd, and proceeding to pretend-bash some guy's head in with a steel chair. Wrestling games have long been a staple of the gaming world, but rarely have they been more fun, more authentic, or more customizable than THQ's Smackdown series. Not only did THQ and developer Yukes render each WWE grappler with amazing detail, but they created a complex yet easy-to-use system by which players could create their own wrestlers to boot. So if you wanted to create your own larger-than-life alter ego, so be it, or, if you wanted to create every old-school wrestler from the 80's, you could do that too. At the end of the day though, I think back to the many epic matches that myself and my brother and my other friends have enjoyed in the Smackdown series - ladder matches, cage matches, and everything in between - and I realize that not putting it on this list would warrant a Stone Cold Stunner, bah gawd.

22. Batman: Arkham Asylum

- It was the singular dream of geeks everywhere: a Batman videogame that actually kicked ass. There've been decent Batman games before, but it wasn't until 2009 that Batman: Arkham Asylum came along and redefined what a superhero game could be. Featuring a great, tension-filled storyline penned by Paul Dini, and key voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series (Kevin Conroy! Mark Hammil!), and gameplay that mixed action, stealth, puzzles, and gadgetry, Arkham Asylum actually made you feel like you were Batman, living in the world of the comics and movies.

23. Mass Effect

- I'll admit, I've only scratched the surface of Mass Effect so far, but I can completely appreciate its massive scope, its intelligent and sophisticated sci-fi storytelling, and its multifaceted gameplay. Developer Bioware knows how to do these kinds of games better than anyone, and they know how to create these intricate worlds packed with all manner of intriguing characters and interesting stories. There's a reason why Mass Effect 2 is now one of 2010's most-anticipated games.

24. Okami

- Japanese games certainly became more of a niche product in the 00's. Once the dominant-source for AAA game development, Japan seemed to become increasingly marginalized this decade, as their quirky aesthetics became farther and farther removed from American sensibilities. Sadly, Japanese developers began to find it tough to compete with the big budgets of American blockbusters, and as someone who was raised on Japanese games from Capcom, Konami, Technos, Square, Nintendo, etc, I still love games that have that unique Japanese quirkiness. Enter Okami - a beautiful game from Capcom that brought Japanese mythology and folklore to life, with a vivid, painterly art style, and innovative gameplay that saw you "paint" your commands onto the screen.

25. Scribblenauts

- This past year, Scribblenauts debuted on the Nintendo DS, and the sheer craziness of the premise practically made it an instant classic. The concept? You can create *any* object to use in the game - anything at all that you can think of. Want a jetpack? A sword? A T-Rex? Santa Claus? Type it in, and it appears on-screen like magic. Absolutely incredible. As you play, you begin to realize some of the hidden parameters / limitations of the game, but that initial feeling of total freedom, of being limited only by your own imagination, holds steady. Definitely one of the most unique games I've ever played.

And there you have it, my picks for the best games of the decade. I still have one more Best of the Decade entry to post, and it's a big one, so stay tuned!

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