As a kid, I played almost any game that had a cool character on the box or starred my beloved Ninja Turtles. But even then, although I lacked the vocabulary to explain it, I knew that Super Mario Bros. was special, and better than almost everything else. So when I received Super Mario Bros. 3 from Santa one year, and saw on the back of the box that Mario could fly, I knew I was in for something special.
Many games attempt to emulate cinema, dealing in the same tropes and stock characters. Initially, it looks like Uncharted does the same thing – it focuses on a treasure hunter who frequently finds himself in danger across exotic locations. But when you play Uncharted, especially the second installment, Among Thieves, you realise it surpasses so much of Hollywood’s recent output with ease.
While some would vote Final Fantasy VI the better game, 1997's Final Fantasy VII is arguably the bolder one in this anything-but-final roleplaying series. Laying complex polygonal graphics over beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds, Japanese developer Squaresoft took advantage of the PlayStation’s compact-disc drive to craft an experience Sony rival Nintendo—who’d rejected Sony’s pitch for a disc-based add-on to the Super Nintendo—simply couldn’t. The operatic, labyrinthine and often wonderfully weird tale of ecologically minded heroes out to save their “living” planet from corporate energy raiders proved the most popular in the series, selling over 10 million copies worldwide and prompting perennial cries for a remake (that's finally happening).
Jonathan Blow's elliptical time-bending 2008 side-scroller was for many a tale of heartbreak and disruption that touched on various cultural grievances. Blow pushed back, suggesting such interpretations were too simplistic. Whatever the case, Braid plays like nothing else, the act of a mind capable of magisterially subverting conventional design ideas and player expectations while embedding concepts as grand as the nature of reality in the gameplay itself. No Man's Sky co-creator Sean Murray compares Braid to a time machine: "It’s like Blow went back to the aesthetic of the late ‘80s and created a rift in time, like an alternate universe where we’d have gone in a different direction. Because Braid could have existed on the Amiga, and at the time it would have blown people’s minds. It would have completely changed how games developed."
With 14 unique weapons that all control entirely differently, endless armor customization options that change more than just fashion, and incredibly difficult (but fair) fights that reward players with an incomparable sense of accomplishment, Monster Hunter: World is in a world of its own when it comes to endless replayability and challenge. Add in the fact you can hunt with your best friends, and you have a recipe worthy of the Meowscular Chef himself.
BioWare has built its reputation on classic RPGs, but it's unlikely that any will represent its legacy as well as the Mass Effect series, and the original ME was an astounding introduction to that world. Who can forget the first time they opened the galaxy map of their very own starship Normandy for the first time or the outcome of their standoff with Wrex? Mass Effect managed to create an intricate new universe and fill it with compelling lore and secrets to discover, and one of the most intriguing campaign arcs of a sci-fi game to date. While later entries in the series may have failed to deliver on the seeds planted in this first chapter, the momentous choices that ME1 offered us were - and remain - some of the most compelling branching plot points out there, ones that won't be forgotten any time soon.
As you head out for a suicide mission, you’ll meet some of the best-written characters that feel original and have the power to evoke true emotions. Perhaps one of the best parts about earning the loyalty of each of the companions was discovering more about their respective species and seeing how they’re surviving in a violent galaxy. Maximum loyalty for my companions in Mass Effect 2 was not an option; for my heart’s own good, it was a requirement.
It gave us a deeper look into the wonderful world of Aperture Science without completely dragging all of its mysteries out into the light. It also mixed its “thinking with portals” puzzles up even further by weaving in gel mechanics that felt entirely fresh and completely natural at the same time - while simultaneously and subtly using them to tie gameplay mechanics into the story, patiently waiting until its incredible finale to pay off those setups with one of the weirdest and most spectacular video game endings around. Couple that with a seriously good co-op campaign and even a full-on custom level builder and sharing systems added post-launch and Portal 2 has stayed the high bar by which all first-person puzzle games should be measured, even nearly a decade later.
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.