Super Metroid’s minimalistic environmental storytelling set a bar, way back in 1994, that I believe has still yet to be eclipsed. The planet Zebes is atmospheric, oppressive, and extremely lethal. At first glance, there doesn’t even appear to be any story. But then you start to look more closely. The parasite-riddled dead soldier outside of an early boss room. The crashed, half-submerged alien spaceship that may or may not be haunted. The techno lair of the space pirates hiding under your nose the entire game. It’s brilliant and confident. It doesn’t explain to you what each new area is all about. It’s all there, for you to figure out (or ignore) on your own.
But what sets Super Mario World apart from other 2D Mario games is its irresistible complexity. Subsequent Super Mario games, like the New Super Mario Bros. series, simplified the overworld, trading Super Mario World’s cool hidden paths for linear tracks, largely abandoned the skies and treetops of Super Mario World’s vertical levels for ground-based obstacle courses, and did away with flying almost entirely (capes rule, helicopter hats drool!). Super Mario World is the crescendo to the slow build in technology and game design that started with Super Mario Bros. And that crescendo featured a cool, simulated 90s slap bass track.

He may not be officially recognized by the new Star Wars canon, but there’s no Jedi I’d rather have in my corner than Kyle Katarn. Dark Forces 1 and 2 may have built up his character, but it wasn’t until Jedi Outcast that we really saw Kyle at his best (or worse, if you went down that path). More than just making choices about good and evil, Jedi Outcast allowed us to live out our force-using fantasies in a time where lightsaber battles were mostly relegated to the movies.
Its premise was straightforward: you found yourself alone on a space station where you were apparently the only thing left alive. Well, the only organic thing. Rogue AI SHODAN wastes little time in establishing herself as your formidable opponent. Along the way you pick up elements of the backstory through audio logs (another design feature that's standard fare now) and can mold yourself in any way you choose, from a DPS/combat focus to a pure hacker that can infiltrate any system. System Shock 2 was tense, smart, and as great as it was immediately upon its release in 1999, ahead of its time.
The story of Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo's journey across a strange, slanted version of America was such a vast departure from previous RPGs I'd played like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. It wasn't drenched in fantasy tropes and pathos, but rather brimming with color, humor, and some of the weirdest characters and events I'd ever seen in a game. Simultaneously, it knows how to pack an emotional punch.
Who can forget the moment they first shot the face off a possessed farmer in Resident Evil 4, only to conjure a lively Lovecraftian horror with tentacles squirming from its neck? This was Resident Evil reborn, its creaky fixed perspectives and klutzy directional controls supplanted by a freer over-the-shoulder, shoot-first perspective that felt at once elegant and intuitive. Instead of cheap haunted house scares in claustrophobic spaces, the story shifted to organic exploration of delightfully creepy areas, punctuated by frenzied scrambles to fend off the series' most inspired adversaries. Capcom's timely embrace in 2005 of action-oriented principles stole nothing from the game's cheerless ambience, and actually amplified the sense of trudging through a phantasmagoric nightmare.
Journey is the closest a video game has come to emulating the effects of poetry. In terms of structure it’s so simple: you must reach a snowy mountain peak visible in the distance. Along the way, your character surfs across glistening deserts, hides from flying creatures made entirely from cloth, and occasionally meets other players embarking on the same pilgrimage.

By marrying an open-ended approach to quest structure with the ability to freely explore a vast, beautiful, intriguing world with little specific regulation, the 3D Zelda game template was shattered about as fast as the average breakable weapon in Breath of the Wild. The result is a gorgeous, freeing open-world action/adventure experience that evokes the wonder and fear of exploring a bold new place with the empowering tangibility of becoming its hero.

Furthermore, and perhaps even more importantly, Halo 2 was the killer app for Xbox Live. It brought the party system and matchmaking hopper concept to consoles, instantly making every other online console game look archaic in its infrastructure by comparison. Of course, it helped that the multiplayer gameplay was, well, legendary. The maps were almost all memorably brilliant, the match options were vast, and the ranking system kept you fighting night after night to try and move up. Halo 2 remains the gold standard for console first-person shooter multiplayer, despite the fact that it's been 15 years since its release.
Super Metroid’s minimalistic environmental storytelling set a bar, way back in 1994, that I believe has still yet to be eclipsed. The planet Zebes is atmospheric, oppressive, and extremely lethal. At first glance, there doesn’t even appear to be any story. But then you start to look more closely. The parasite-riddled dead soldier outside of an early boss room. The crashed, half-submerged alien spaceship that may or may not be haunted. The techno lair of the space pirates hiding under your nose the entire game. It’s brilliant and confident. It doesn’t explain to you what each new area is all about. It’s all there, for you to figure out (or ignore) on your own.
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