X-COM’s magic is how it makes the war to defend Earth from a vastly superior alien invasion force feel so intensely personal, even with its extremely dated (but expressive) graphics and spreadsheet-like interface. Part of this comes from the way that every decision you make, from where on the globe you place your bases, to which alien technology to research, to whether to spend your soldier’s last few time units to reload his weapon, crouch, or take a Hail Mary shot at a distant alien, has enormously high stakes. Choose right, and your team of alien hunters will gain a leg up on the battlefield from advanced weapons (like the guided Blaster Launcher missiles), armor, or tactical positioning; choose poorly and literally everyone could be slaughtered – or worse, transformed into drooling zombies to serve as incubators for horrific Chryssalids.
In the 1980s, the years that led up to Nintendo's reign were dominated by PC titles, and of these none were better imagined than Sierra's. When honoring their adventure line, critics typically laud the original King's Quest. But it's the third installment released in 1986 that deserves the most acclaim, because it was also twice as big as the first two installments, and as clever as any in the series. Following the adventures of Daventry's 17-year-old Prince Alexander, the game hit closer to home with its primary players, who like it or not were pretty much boys. Yet despite the outmoded graphics (or maybe because of them), the keyboard-controlled adventure is still a joy to play (try it yourself). From amassing all the ingredients to make potions, to avoiding the wizard's evil black cat, to stealing the pirate's treasure, it's pure magic.
When I was younger, few games settled an argument like GoldenEye. Living in a flat with three other people, if we couldn’t decide like rational adults whose turn it was to do the household chores, it was decided over a game of GoldenEye’s multiplayer. The battleground was always the Facility and to truly sort out the men from the Bonds it was Slaps only. Anyone who picked Odd Job was instantly disqualified.
Mario's brick-breaking, Goomba-stomping antics were enough to mesmerize the world's gamers in Nintendo's idiosyncratic side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. games. But 1996's Super Mario 64 transported Nintendo fans into Mario's universe as no other game in the series had, simultaneously laying out a grammar for how to interact with 3D worlds (and in its case, divinely zany ones). At more than 11 million copies sold, it was one of the bestselling games for the Nintendo 64, but its real impact was arguably off-platform, where it tectonically shifted the design imperatives of an entire industry. As Rockstar co-founder and Grand Theft Auto V cowriter Dan Houser put it: "Anyone who makes 3-D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda [on Nintendo 64] is lying."
Like Fallout 3 before it, Fallout New Vegas throws us into a harsh, post-nuclear America. But it very quickly becomes something greater than just more of the same thanks to some amazing writing and touches by some of the minds behind the original Fallout and Fallout 2. It’s not limited to mechanical tweaks like improved real-time combat and crafting. Several factions with deep, shades-of-gray characters populate the wastes with interesting moral decisions, making the conflict between the New California Republic, Caesar’s Legion, and the mysterious Mr. House feel like anything but a black-and-white choice between good and evil.
As Microsoft Flight Simulator to the flight sim genre, so Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo series to hi-fi motorsport hot-rodding. Of all the Gran Turismo games, 2001's Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec for the PlayStation 2 remains the series' apotheosis, a madly ambitious encyclopedia of lovingly modeled vehicles and vistas surpassing the wildest gear nut fantasies. Here was a racing game to rule all others, that on its surface promised endless championship events framed by thrillingly realistic physics and painstakingly replicated visuals, but that also catered to armchair grease monkeys, who might spend hours fine-tuning then gawking at their drop-dead gorgeous rides.
In this era of Trophies and Achievements, completing everything in a game is common. But when Yoshi’s Island came out, the reward for exploration was greater than a Gamerscore: for collecting all of the extremely well-hidden red coins and flowers and then finishing a level with 30 stars (which basically means you can’t get hit), you received a 100% rating. If you did this on every level in a world, you unlocked two more levels in each of the six worlds. And these levels were even harder than the others!
Playdead's bleak, gorgeous puzzle-platformer builds on its predecessor Limbo in all the right places – hello, colour palettes; goodbye, boring gravity puzzles. It leaves us with a game that sleekly, wordlessly pivots from brain-teaser to body horror, until hitting an ending that ranks among gaming’s best, a masterpiece of animation, design and outright strangeness.