Designed by a Russian computer scientist, mass-distributed by a Japanese company and devoured by gamers—casual or compulsive—around the world, Tetris has been a global phenomenon since its arrival in 1984. In 1989, Nintendo put the legendary tile-matching puzzler on the NES and Game Boy, where it catapulted the latter to meteoric success. It's been available on nearly every platform since, a testament to our never-ending zeal for stacking blocks. However addictive, Tetris also appears to have modest health benefits, like cravings control and PTSD prevention. Devotees would probably nod and note how much a high-scoring, in-the-zone session can feel like meditation. And speaking of Zen, the game's also generated its share of life lessons, including this apocryphal truism: "If Tetris has taught me anything, it’s that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear."
Persona 5 feels like the Persona game the team always wanted to make but didn’t have the technology to achieve. With hand-built palaces instead of procedurally-generated dungeons, a stunning visual style and art direction, and a memorable and moving soundtrack, this easily stands out as the most impressive Persona game yet. Everything from the UI to scene transitions to the animated cutscenes is absolutely dripping with style, and the battle system combines series staples with mechanics that haven’t been in the franchise in over a decade for perfectly balanced fights. All of that on top of a fantastic story and memorable characters make this one of the best JRPGs ever made.
Blizzard’s bracing 2004 fantasy simulation World of Warcraft introduced millions of players to the concept (and joys and frustrations) of massively multiplayer online worlds. Like so many influential products, it didn’t invent so much as refine and perfect—from the way gamers meet-up and socialize online to how to populate large digital worlds with satisfying stuff to do. It was one of the first games to render a landmass that felt “real” and un-gated, allowing players to run from one end of the continents in its fictional Azeroth to the other without seeing a loading screen. It also de-stigmatized and normalized online gaming by, over time, revealing that its millions of players (some 12 million at its peak in 2010) were no different from non-players. The massive revenue it generated for years also spurred legions of game designers to try to create similar online playgrounds.
Taking it a step further, those cutscenes were paired with some truly talented voice acting and narrative design. As I played through the storyline I learned to love the different little characters I interacted with and felt genuine anger when the Zerg managed to capture Kerrigan and bend her to their will. This character had been with you through thick and thin and after she's captured you, of course, begin the mission to rescue her.
When I was famished for Dungeons and Dragons, Divinity: Original Sin 2 filled that void for me. It gave me the freedom to cheat, steal, kill, or persuade my way with kindness through the campaign with a friend (or three!) just like in D&D. Creative play is not only allowed, but encouraged and intentionally made possible by the developers. It felt liberating playing a huge RPG that rewards “cheating” the system, and encountering NPCs and opponents that acknowledge and react to it. I’ve since recommended it to all of my real-life D&D parties, and they’ve all come back with the same opinion: This is the best D&D experience you can get from a video game. DOS2 even has a Game Master mode, which lets you build your own campaigns. But, the built-in story is decidedly plenty and nearly infinitely replayable. The premade characters all have their own special storylines, and the numerous way things pan out depend on player actions, backstory choices, race, and more. Whether playing on an easy or hard difficulty setting, as an Elf Ranger or an Undead Conjurer, as a helpful adventurer or a murderous thief, DOS2 is a fun fantasy world to get lost in no matter what.
BioShock will likely always be remembered for its game-changing “Would You Kindly?” twist, but the first adventure in Rapture is so much more than a dressed-up dupe. From first encountering a splicer caring for a gun the way a mother cares for her baby to the still-enrapturing Andrew Ryan twist toward the game’s end, BioShock delivers one enrapturing setpiece after another. That’s largely in part thanks to one of the most memorable locations in gaming history. So much story is embedded in the dilapidated hallways and shuttered rooms of Rapture, a decaying underwater labyrinth that demands to be investigated. The mark of a good experience is one that you keep thinking about long after you’ve finished it. And I still haven’t stopped thinking about BioShock, its incredible location, and those awesome Plasmids, over a decade later.
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."
The original Fable, while very very good, never quite lived up to co-creator Peter Molyneux's lofty "plant an acorn and it will grow into a tree over the course of the game" promises. Fable 2, however, fulfilled an amazing amount of this charming, decidedly British-humored action-adventure. The world of Albion came alive on the Xbox 360, while Fable 2 was also one of the first games to give you a full-time canine companion. The dog was, in gameplay terms, rather straightforward, but for many players, the pooch tugged on your heartstrings and made you care about him/her in a way that you typically wouldn't above the average human or fantasy-pet RPG. Solid combat, a multiple-choice ending, great music and world-building, and a deft balance of action, adventure, and role-playing helped make Fable 2 both the pinnacle of the series and one of the finest bits of escapist fantasy ever coded.
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.